Burning smartphones: Why some catch fire and are you at risk?

Story highlights

  • Samsung has discontinued Galaxy Note 7 phone over fire safety issues
  • Experts say issues confined to one particular product, consumers not at risk

(CNN)When Samsung unveiled the Galaxy Note 7 smartphone back in August, with its much-lauded battery life, the South Korean firm looked like it was on to a winner -- until the phones started bursting into flames.

Initially, the tech giant cited "battery cell issues" in September but since then, radio silence on the cause of the fault.
    Not only did the Seoul-based firm face an embarrassing worldwide recall, but subsequent replacement phones also faced similar issues.
    Attention has continued to focus on the phone's lithium-ion battery.
    Having failed to fix the disastrous problem, Samsung announced a permanent end to production of the troubled smartphone on Tuesday.
    With many of our electronics using these lithium-ion batteries, consumers have been left wondering if they are safe. Here's what you need to know:

    What is a lithium-ion battery?

    Batteries are containers that can convert chemical energy to electrical energy through the transfer of electrons from the negative plate -- or anode -- at one end of the battery to the cathode -- or positive plate at the other end.
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    But traditional batteries have a limited number of units of convertible chemical energy. The difference with the lithium-ion battery is that it is rechargeable -- a game-changer in tech innovation.
    Steve Levine, author of The Powerhouse: Inside the Invention of a Battery to Save the World explained that it "triggered this whole electronics revolution starting in the beginning of 1990s until today. It has enabled the iPhone, medical devices, wearables, iPads, our thin laptops -- all of that is because of the lithium-ion battery.
    "Lithium is the lightest metal in the world which is why they use it but it is also extremely volatile, Almost every laptop on the planet, almost every smartphone is a standard formulation which is cobalt-oxide and lithium. But then there are competing formulations."

    So why do some of them catch fire?

    Levine says speculation among researchers suggests that the battery manufacturing process could be the source of the smartphone fires, but ultimately no one knows. And the lack of information creates consumer anxiety which could ripple out to the wider electronics industries.
    "It potentially tarnishes all the manufacturers," said Levine. "How do we know that Apple or the new Google phone is not going to have the same problem?"
    However, some experts say the fact the high-end phone has been discontinued points towards a design flaw.
    "The discontinuation signals that the root of the problems does not lie in the production errors, but possibly in the product design," TuanAnh Nguyen, a research analyst at Canalys told CNNMoney.

    Could manufacturing be the problem?

    This is by not the first time lithium-ion batteries have hit the headlines.
    Although the Samsung phone's battery is different to those in airliners, Boeing faced similar issues with lithium-ion batteries in their Dreamliner aircraft. Their entire global fleet was grounded in 2013 after multiple instances of overheating batteries in Boston and Tokyo.
    Investigations by the National Transportation Safety Board determined that manufacturing defects and allegedly unsatisfactory oversight of the manufacturing of the batteries by both the FAA and Boeing were the root causes of the incidents.
    At least two fatal cargo jet crashes are believed by investigating authorities to have been caused by fires on board as a result of these lithium-ion batteries. In 2010, a Boeing 747 crashed in Dubai, killing two crew members while an Asiana Airlines 747 crashed off South Korea the following year, also killing two crew members.

    Are consumers in danger?

    No, according to Levine, who says consumers are not at immediate risk from phones in their pockets blowing up.
    He said: "We know right now that the problem has been confined to this one model... that it hasn't been something that has risen chronically, at least in any other Samsung device, [or] at any other manufacturer.
    "So the quick answer is that [consumers] shouldn't be concerned but that doesn't mean they won't be."