No doubt you remember the summer of 2016, when Samsung Galaxy Note 7 cellphones were recalled two weeks after the flagship product launched due to the risk of battery fire or explosion. It was all over the news for what seemed like months. The phones were banned from all commercial airline flights. Customers returned the recalled phones to Samsung, and in many cases the replacement phones were defective as well. For Samsung, it was a disaster on an epic, international scale. The cause was a manufacturing defect in some of the lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries provided with the Note 7.
While that debacle is over, the potential for Li-ion batteries to catch fire or explode hasn’t gone away, as I have recently been reminded. Li-ion batteries are ubiquitous, powering virtually all of our electronic devices, and sometimes those batteries fail for various reasons.
My wife’s nearly seven-year-old Galaxy S5 was coming apart at the seams; a gap between the left edge of the display and the side of the unit had appeared. Less than 2mm wide (a bit more than 1/16 inch) it was obvious to the casual user that something was wrong, but the gap was not so wide that one could easily see the phone’s innards. The phone still worked, but it had begun to do odd things like quickly run out of power and then repeatedly reboot itself over and over again until it was plugged back in to recharge. She informed me that it had either “fallen” or had been dropped. We purchased a new unlocked phone which we took to our carrier’s retail store for a new SIM chip, as the SIM from the old S5 was too big to fit in the new phone. Of course they wouldn’t take my word for it, being a mere customer, and insisted on taking the old SIM out of the old phone and trying in vain to insert it into the new phone. Oh, well. Turns out that was a good thing, because the guy behind the counter immediately recognized the cause of the gap on the old S7: battery bloat, or battery bulge, also called battery swelling. The old battery (original, never replaced) had swollen like a balloon from its normal size and pushed the display out and away from the case. Having assumed the phone had come apart from impact with the floor, it hadn’t crossed my mind to look for a villainous bloated battery (which can easily separate a case like that, much like hydraulics).
There are several reasons a Li-ion battery can swell: a manufacturing defect, overcharging, physical damage, and old-age are common causes. In any case when swelling happens it’s never a good thing, and something you need to fix right away. Unplug your device (phone, tablet, laptop, etc.) and allow the battery to run down. Do not attempt to recharge a bloated battery. The bloat is caused by a build-up of gases that could be toxic if they escape from the battery, or could even cause a fire or explosion. This warning applies to all makes and models of electronics that use Li-ion batteries, including Apple products. (The problem is not limited to Samsung or Android devices).
You can easily get a swollen battery replaced by any reputable repair shop (search for cellphone repair in your area). Alternatively, if you have a little DIY mechanical aptitude and electronics don’t intimidate you, a replacement battery or replacement kit (including the battery) can be purchased online. For most folks however, I recommend paying the extra cost to have a repair shop do the job. Just be sure to take a look at some online reviews to see what other people have to say about the service provided by your chosen vendor before you hand your phone over to them. Choose wisely!
I mentioned above that it turned out to be a good thing our carrier’s agent saw the old phone and pointed out the bulging battery. This evening, it dawned on my wife that her Wi-Fi hotspot may also have a swollen battery, as it too has a case separation gap. It too, fell on the floor months ago, and she had assumed the impact caused the case separation. So, this is what you should do if you suspect your device has a bulging battery: unplug it from the charger, let the battery discharge completely, and remove the battery. Then the device can be plugged back in and it should work normally, as will most electronics after their Li-ion batteries are removed. You can then buy a new battery to replace the old.
Because my wife’s Wi-Fi hotspot is only just a little over a year old, if the battery is swollen, it’s not due to old age. Possibly it’s due to either a manufacturing defect (a low probability), or possibly the charging station it’s been plugged into for over a year is defective and overcharged the battery. That’s a situation we’ll either have to keep an eye on or just bite the bullet and replace the charger to be on the safe side.
If you search YouTube for causes of cellphone battery swelling or bulging, you’ll find dozens of videos which (irresponsibly, in my opinion) show you how to open up a bloated battery thereby releasing the toxic gas built up inside, or they demonstrate how to cause them to catch on fire or explode. Some of these videos seem to falsely claim that venting the gas is a legitimate way to “fix” a swollen battery. Whatever you do, do NOT open, pierce, crush, or damage in any way, any rechargeable battery. If it’s bad, replace it and dispose of the old battery properly. Do NOT throw it in with your regular trash or into regular recycling. You can find a local recycling center, or take it to a retailer that accepts rechargeable batteries for recycling such as Best Buy, Staples, Lowes, or Home Depot.
This video from the University of Michigan explains about “Lithium Ion Batteries: Why They Explode” (3:16):
Question of the Night: Do you hang on to your old cellphone as long as possible, or do you like to replace it every year or two?