Your smartphone has a rather sizable appetite for energy. To keep it running just for one day it needs a battery that is capable of storing a rather notable amount of energy. The same is true for your laptop, tablet, smartwatch, and any other sophisticated portable electronic device. For the most part we never think about the batteries that power our portable electronics until they degrade to such a point that we find ourselves recharging them more often than we’re comfortable with. But what happens when something besides the usual wear and tear goes wrong with our batteries? What happens if a battery decides to release its stored energy all at once? This is a problem plaguing companies that specialize in recycling electronics:
MADISON, Wis. — What happens to gadgets when you’re done with them? Too often, they explode.
As we enter new-gadget buying season, spare a moment to meet the people who end up handling your old stuff. Isauro Flores-Hernandez, who takes apart used smartphones and tablets for a living, keeps thick gloves, metal tongs and a red fireproof bin by his desk here at Cascade Asset Management, an electronics scrap processor. He uses them to whisk away devices with batteries that burst into flames when he opens them for recycling.
One corner of his desk is charred from an Apple iPhone that began smoking and then exploded after he opened it in 2016. Last year, his co-worker had to slide away an exploding iPad battery and evacuate the area while it burned out.
Due to their popularity, lithium-ion batteries are receiving a lot of attention at the moment but the problem of uncontrolled energy release isn’t unique to them. Anything capable of storing energy so that it can be released in a controlled manner can suffer a failure that causes the energy to be released in an uncontrolled manner. Consider the gas tank in your vehicle. Under normal operating conditions the energy stored in your gas tank is released in a controlled manner by your engine. But a crash can cause the energy to be released in an uncontrolled manner, which results in a fire or explosion.
Anything that can store a large quantity of energy should be treated with respect. If you’re repairing your smartphone or laptop, be careful around the battery. If you smell something odd coming from one of your battery-powered devices, put some distance between it and yourself (and anything that can catch fire and burn).