Samsung Galaxy Note 7 Disaster Shows Limits of Mobile Battery Tech

Samsung Galaxy Note 7 batteries couldn’t take the heat. Are there alternatives to prevent repeat failures?

Now that Samsung is ending production of its Galaxy Note 7 due to battery problems – and perhaps another operating flaw only as-yet alluded to – the question is where the company will go next. Samsung’s rise has been premised on its investment in high-end quality consumer goods, and the Galaxy Note 7 has damaged that reputation.

The battery fires made the phone, to paraphrase Ralph Nader, unsafe at any charge. (A stopgap measure to cap the charge at 60% to avoid fires did not resolve the problem.) Samsung has even resorted to shipping fireproof gloves and containers for customer returns since otherwise mailing the devices is impossible.

The South Korean technology giant may now lose up to $2.8 billion over the recall, “which would be enough to wipe out the entire mobile division’s operating profits for the fourth quarter” according to The Wall Street Journal. The New York Times cited figures from Strategy Analytics showing a $10 billion annual loss overall.

The goodwill and brand loyalty that saw the firm through the first few weeks of the crisis – 90% of exchange program customers reportedly opted for a matching replacement – have suffered since stories of the replacements malfunctioning surfaced.

Battery suppliers in the spotlight

In China, it may be a different story. Chinese regulators announced a nationwide recall of the Note 7, publicly clashing with Samsung on reports of device fires in the Chinese market. Samsung says these fires are not related to the present situation, while the regulators say they have documented cases proving they are.

The recall in China actually suggests that the battery problems are not limited to one supplier. But Samsung has yet to name the manufacturer of the defective batteries among its supply chain, and it is unclear why. Is it for legal reasons – if it is not just Samsung SDI, naming another company has ramifications at this stage – or it is because it is unclear if it is more than just one supplier affected?

A request for comment from Samsung US and its global PR agency, Edelman, regarding the company’s battery suppliers was not returned at the time of publication.

An agreement for China ATL to make the Note 7’s replacement batteries before the shutdown, at least, suggests a high level of confidence in the firm, best-known for building many of Apple’s iPhone batteries. The shutdown, though, now leaves this deal up in the air.

Samsung now is riding a lot of its hope on the Galaxy S8, which will be its first product to incorporate the company’s new Viv virtual assistant technology. Samsung acquired Viv Labs, the assistant’s designer, only last week and hopes to integrate Viv into other consumer products as well.

Samsung has not disclosed if and how the Note 7 problems will affect its supply chain for the S8’s own batteries.

Lithium-ion limitations

Lithium-ion batteries have dominated the mobile market since the beginning, and materials science advances have made them more ubiquitous and reliable than ever before. But it can still be difficult to ensure quality control due to their fragility, a problem not unique to Samsung. All other major mobile makers have had to recall high-end products due to such faults. Indeed, despite their predominance, lithium-ion batteries have limits on how much of a charge they can safely hold in a conveniently-sized device.

Phones are not getting “smaller” in the way people imagined in the early 2000s, but obviously can do so much more, requiring more and more power. According to Reutersfast-charging technology and improved energy density designs will help meet these requirements, but not make the batteries any less flammable than they are now.

To date, the only real solution, which was proposed in the mid-2000s and has not made much progress since, is adopting silver-zinc battery technology.

The design is proven, but it has not been adopted on a large scale anywhere. Geektime reached out to Dr. Ross E. Dueber, CEO of ZPower, a company that makes silver-zinc batteries, for further comment.

Dr. Dueber notes that cost is the primary reason why silver-zinc batteries have not been implemented for phones and laptops. Several years ago, ZPower developed the technology for these devices, but, “Consumer electronics manufacturers have been unwilling to pay more for silver-zinc than for commodity Li[thium]-ion.” He believes, though, the phasing in the technology would cost less than the billions Samsung will lose over the Note 7 shutdown.

Although the manufacturing costs are higher, Dr. Dueber told Geektime that the silver-zinc design has two advantages over lithium-ion: the first is a higher energy density, which allows them to hold a charge for a longer period of time. The second is that the electrolyte inside them is water-based, similar to alkaline batteries, so if the device malfunctions there will not be a fire. When lithium batteries go haywire they, “overheat and vent, spewing out hot, flammable liquid that ignites in air,” Dr. Dueber said, whereas, “Silver-zinc has a safe failure mode, unlike the frequent catastrophic failure of Li[thium]-ion.”

If manufacturers do change their mind, ZPower would be ready to listen. Currently, the company specializes in miniature batteries using silver-zinc technology, such as those for hearing aids.

Read the full article originally published on Geektime.