Samsung announced this week the results of their investigations regarding the Galaxy Note 7 fires. Samsung hired three independent test laboratories, Exponent, TUV Rheinland and UL to perform the analyses. The result was three full reports and presentations with technical details, mostly written by engineers for engineers. Vlad Savov at The Verge called the reports “humble and nerdy.” I can hear many in the audience screaming: “Translation, please!” I will try in this post to simplify and summarize the findings.
Of the three reports, the one written by Exponent is the one that offers the most useful pointers into what went wrong with the Note 7 batteries. Here’s what it said, in simple terms.
First, Samsung Electronics (the maker of the Note 7) used batteries from two battery manufacturers: Manufacturer A is Samsung’s sister company, Samsung SDI; Manufacturer B is China-based Amperex Technology Limited, also known as ATL. In the sequence of events, the batteries made by Samsung SDI were the first to catch fires. Samsung Electronics decided to replace all SDI batteries with those made by ATL, but these too caught fire. Two different battery designs made by two different manufacturers, both catching fires..ouch! If you are a gambler, this is equivalent to winning the jackpot! But as we will see next, the published reports pointed instead to sloppy designs and poor manufacturing.
Let’s start with the Samsung SDI cells and what went wrong with them. I have shared in past posts the basic structure of a lithium-ion battery. It is made of alternating layers of conducting electrodes separated by an insulating layer called the separator. The #1 edict of battery safety is that the two electrodes, the anode and cathode, cannot touch. If they do, they form an electric short and cause a fire. It is common practice among battery experts that the root cause of most battery fires is an electric short. So what caused the electric short in the batteries from Samsung SDI?
The Samsung reports (as well as our own internal investigations) show that there was sufficient force on the edge of the battery during the manufacturing process that damaged the battery, effectively damaging the insulating separator or the graphite anode. When the separator gets damaged, it can no longer hold the anode and cathode physically apart; the two electrodes touch resulting in an electric short.
The second failure mode is more subtle but equally deadly. If you recall from previous posts, I have spoken about the need of a “balance” between the anode and cathode to prevent the formation of metallic lithium, also known as lithium plating. The presence of physical damage in the graphite layer breaks this balance creating the seeds for lithium metal. With use, lithium metal dendrites begin to form and ultimately grow to form a direct electric short inside the battery. The Exponent report illustrates this effect well in the following diagram. In other words, lithium plating is a dangerous culprit in the Note 7 fires.
I cannot over-emphasize the dangers of lithium metal plating! It is a lurking hazard that leads to unexpected fires. It is a risk that develops without visible manifestation. No amount of X-Ray inspection at the manufacturing site will detect the presence of lithium metal plating. And when these dendrites grow slowly in time, your battery will catch fire. In this particular case, the physical damage to the battery edge was the catalyst that led to lithium metal plating. But as I have mentioned repeatedly, many other reasons including aggressive battery designs can lead to lithium metal plating.
Now let’s talk about what went wrong with the ATL cells. The batteries made by ATL did not suffer from physical damage. Instead, the reports point to defects during the welding process of the electrical tabs (where one makes a connection to the battery). As the battery swelled and contracted during charging/discharging, these weld defects came apart and caused an electric short. In other words, this was pure and simple sloppy manufacturing by ATL in their rush to manufacture millions of batteries for Samsung.
Is there any hidden good news here or is it all bad news? The good news is that Samsung came clean. The Exponent report is credible and matches our own internal findings on the SDI battery. The good news is that the manufacturing defects during welding of the ATL batteries are relatively easy to address. I am reasonably certain that ATL and Samsung have now implemented proper procedures to eliminate welding defects. I am also reasonably certain that Samsung and SDI have implemented procedures to minimize physical damage to the battery edges.
But the bad news is that none of the new procedures address the elephant in the room: Lithium metal plating! We applaud all the additional inspection steps that Samsung is implementing, but the sad reality is that none of them will detect or prevent the formation of lithium metal plating. As I have observed in several prior posts, lithium metal plating can occur for many different reasons. Eliminating physical damage during manufacturing is good but is not sufficient and is not addressing a root cause of safety failures. Be prepared to see more battery fires in the industry!