A decade of growing pains: Not just Samsung’s problem 

It has been an explosive start for Samsung’s new cell phone, Galaxy Note 7, with a few of the devices literally combusting into flames. 

 It became apparent in the many airports we passed through for the Benchmark World Tour 2016 that it was becoming a serious problem for Samsung.

 Warnings on the Galaxy Note 7 were everywhere; from baggage check to security X-rays to notices on the airplane.

 As if that wasn’t enough, as the air stewards went through their pre-flight procedure there were warnings over the tannoy: “If you are carrying a Samsung Galaxy Note 7, please keep it turned off at all times”. 

 Bad lithium ion batteries in Samsung’s phone have made the aviation industry very nervous. 

 But this is not just a problem for Samsung; it is a problem for Apple, one for Tesla and General Motors, and a major issue for the lithium ion battery industry as a whole. 

 Samsung isn’t the first company to have a problem with combusting batteries. You may remember a decade ago, the Sony Vaio laptops had the same problem – catching on fire when being used extensively. 

 Boeing’s Dreamliner aircraft also had high profile lithium ion issues with battery packs on its launch a few years ago, resulting in a handful of its planes being grounded. 

 More recently, there has been widespread YouTube footage of battery powered hover-boards catching fire – something that quickly slowed that craze. And that’s not to mention the continuous new FAA regulation on the transportation of lithium ion batteries. 

 These are all hallmarks of the growing pains the lithium ion battery industry has experienced over the past decade. 

 Over the past four years, the industry has almost doubled its cell output from 35GWh to 63GWh in 2015, with the majority of new supply coming from China. 

 Many new producers have flooded into the industry on the back of generous government subsidies and, while the majority of Chinese cell producers are industry leaders, there has been a lack of standards among the smaller players. 

 Cheap lithium ion batteries are a hazard. 

 If the components that make up the cell aren’t high quality and consistent products, and if the manufacturing process isn’t held to the strictest standards, significant problems can occur. 

 Water, for instance, can be a major issue in the production of batteries. During the production cycle of a cell, there are a number of drying processes the batteries have to be exposed to in order to maximize safety.

 Similarly, separator materials have become a huge issue for the industry. Supply has expanded at a faster rate than any of lithium ion components, largely due to relatively low barriers to entry – but this doesn’t ensure quality. 

 Bad separators are the source of the blame for Samsung’s cell phone fires. 

 There is also a problem with battery packs. This is a critical juncture in the supply chain that has to be mastered if we are going to have widespread electric vehicles and utility scale energy storage. 

 Tesla’s secret is its mastery of making a functional, efficient battery pack with all the necessary cooling systems to make it safe. Samsung SDI – the cell manufacturer that is separate from its consumer technology or ICT business – has made a number of battery pack acquisitions in Europe. 

 The quality of the battery pack – both in components and construction – will determine the quality of the end application, and the wiring and riveting of these packs are areas of particular focus. 

 In the Boeing Dreamliner, for example, the problem wasn’t with the lithium ion cells but the quality of the rivets holding the pack together, that broke apart on the stress of flying. 

 Again, it’s not just a process challenge for the industry but one of sourcing quality raw materials and components that are trusted and consistent. 

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