The chances are very slim, but the possibility exists that your phone may unexpectedly explode. Remember the Samsung Galaxy Note 7? It was a top-notch phone that was praised for superb design and construction, and yet a few months since its release Samsung had to issue an international recall after numerous reports of the Note 7 units catching fire surfaced online.

And it’s not just the Note 7. Other smartphones, tablets, and accessories also had their fair share of overheating and burning incidents. So why do these happen to smartphones?

It’s all about the battery

Today’s modern smartphones have lithium-ion batteries that, like any substance, have a critical temperature. When this critical temperature is reached, batteries undergo a process called thermal runaway.

Think of it as a near-unstoppable chain of chemical reactions inside the battery that causes the battery’s temperature to further rise rapidly, often resulting in fire or even an explosion. It’s for this reason why batteries as well as electronics in general have a recommended range of temperature in which they can operate safely.

So, phones explode due to their battery essentially overheating (although there are non-battery-related incidents, but that’s for another topic). What causes batteries to overheat in the first place?


Manufacturing Issues

In the internal investigation that Samsung conducted following the Note 7 incidents, the company found a couple of design flaws. One pertained to the battery size, as the batteries supplied by SDI—Samsung’s electronic materials manufacturing unit—were too small on the top-right corner that made them susceptible to bending and thereby short-circuiting.

A second flaw still involved the batteries, specifically the new ones from another manufacturer, and meant to replace the faulty SDI units. These replacement batteries were welded improperly and lacked insulation tapes. Samsung’s findings were also corroborated by third-party assessments and teardowns of the Note 7.

Physical Damage

Physical impacts can be damaging to the battery, as these can induce chemical or mechanical reactions that may lead to overheating. Any physical impact with enough force to compromise the integrity of the battery structure can potentially cause this.

For example, a loose screw punctured the battery of an iPhone 4 during an airplane flight in Australia in 2011. The phone emitted a red glow, as well as enough smoke that it had to be put out by the flight attendant using a fire extinguisher. In 2010, a man dropped his Samsung Rogue phone below his car seat and it exploded as he was trying to recover it. In 2020, a Realme 5 blasted inside a man’s pocket. In the investigation that followed, Realme noticed “external force applied” on the battery’s position that caused it to deform and ultimately burn.


Poor Heat Dissipation

As the phone’s processor performs billions of instructions per second, it can get hot especially when it’s working on with too many active apps. Phones are then designed to have a mechanism for heat dissipation to regulate their temperature.

Users must not interfere with their phone’s thermal management, otherwise overheating may occur. Avoid, for instance, using poorly designed phone cases. You may be getting extra protection against the impact of shock and vibration whenever the phone falls to the ground, but you may also be sacrificing something else. Not only can one deteriorate the phone’s signal strength, but it can also be detrimental to the phone’s heat dissipation.

Similarly, avoid exposing your smartphone to extreme temperature conditions. Don’t leave your smartphone in the car under direct sunlight. Don’t put the phone in the freezer overnight.


Overnight Charging

This only applies to old phones. These days, overnight charging as a major cause of phone explosions has become a myth. Modern smartphones, laptops, and other gadgets are smart enough not to overload their battery during charging. With overload protection chips among the innards, these devices stop charging once their lithium-ion battery reaches its capacity.

Watch out for warning signs

Faulty batteries may show some signs that they’re likely to explode. For starters, check if the battery has swollen. If the battery is removable, take it out and see if it looks puffy or if it wobbles when you place it on a flat surface. If the battery is non-removable, you can tell it’s swollen if the phone’s screen is dislodged or the phone chassis looks warped.

A smartphone that’s really close to catching fire or exploding will show these symptoms:

  • hissing or popping sound,
  • smell of burning plastic
  • uncomfortably hot to touch

If you notice any of these signs, it’s best to turn off the device and store it in a container that’s fireproof before you assess your options.

Reduce the risks

The chance of a phone exploding is minimal, but if it happens it can be devastating. Many past incidents resulted in major skin burns, even death. It’s better to take precautions and provide better care for your smartphone and its battery before something unfortunate happens.

For things such as manufacturing defects and things beyond your control, it’s best to contact the manufacturer and ask for tech support. Your experience may vary, but some manufacturers offer free repairs and replacements even if the phone is already out of warranty.

If you want to use third-party chargers, batteries, and accessories, always get one from a known, trusted brand. Chargers and batteries that are sold for next to nothing may most likely be using low-quality materials that, while they reduce cost, skimp on safety features

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