Science

The Silent Dangers in our Smartphones

By Kat Pooprasert

A research published in Nano Energy has identified more than 100 toxic gases released by lithium batteries used in smartphones and tablets.

The gases included carbon monoxide and are potentially fatal, potentially causing strong irritations to the skin, eyes and nasal passages and harm the environment. The research was conducted by researchers from the Institute of NBC Defense and Tsinghua University in China who investigated a type of rechargeable battery known as the “lithium-ion” battery, which is used in two billion consumer devices every year.

Dr. Jie Sun, the lead author and professor at the Institute of NBC Defence described how “nowadays, lithium-ion batteries are being actively promoted by many governments all over the world as a viable energy solution to power everything from electric vehicles to mobile devices. The lithium-ion battery is used by millions of families, so it is imperative that the general public understand the risks behind this energy source.”

The potential dangers of exploding batteries led manufacturers to recall million of devices, as seen in 2006 when Dell recalled four million laptops or just recently this month when Samsung Galaxy Note 7 devices were recalled after reports of battery fires. Contrary to these well-publicised cases, the threats posed by toxic gas emissions and the source of these emissions are not so well understood.

Despite the lack of clear-cut explanations, Dr. Sun and her colleagues were able to identify several factors that can cause an increase in the concentration of toxic gases emitted. For example, the researchers found that a fully charged battery will release more toxic gases than a battery with 50% charged. Further, the chemicals contained int eh batteries and their capacity to release charge also affected the concentrations and types of toxic gases released.

By being able to identify the gases produced and the reasons for their emission, manufacturers are able to better understand how to reduce toxic emissions and protect the wider public. Commenting on the harmful effects of the batters, Dr. Sun said how “Such dangerous substances, in particular carbon monoxide, have the potential to cause serious harm within a short period of time if they leak inside a small, sealed environment, such as the interior of a car or an airplane compartment.”

During the study, almost 20,000 lithium-ion batteries were heated to the point of combustion, which caused most devices to explode and all to emit a range of toxic gases. In the real world, such circumstances can be witnessed if the battery overheats or is damaged in some way.

The researchers now plan to develop this detection technique to improve the safety of lithium-ion batteries so they can be used to power electric vehicles safely. Envisioning a safer future, Dr. Sun concluded that “We hope this research will allow the lithium-ion battery industry and electric vehicle sector to continue to expand and develop with a greater understanding of the potential hazards and ways to combat these issues.”

Photo credit: Laura Bittner

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