Samsung’s Galaxy Note 7 was supposed to be a cutting-edge halo device with an aggressive set of new features. Samsung’s original plan was to launch the device before Apple could field the iPhone 7, then reap the rewards of positive press while Apple grappled with unhappy customers who don’t want to shell out $160 for plastic earrings and prefer their devices with the ubiquitous headphone jack.
Instead, the Note 7 is mostly known for being a fire hazard. To Samsung’s credit, the company has been extremely proactive about dealing with the problem, and has repeatedly pushed its customer base to return the device for a refund or replacement. Unfortunately, the company’s battery problems might not be over.
Southwest Airlines Flight 944 from Louisville to Baltimore had to be evacuated this morning after passenger Brian Green’s Samsung Galaxy Note 7 caught fire. The Verge spoke to Green, who confirmed that his device showed the characteristic black box that distinguishes between a replacement Note 7 and an original version, and Green stated his battery icon had been green. That’s how Samsung has visually distinguished the new, safe Note 7s from the defective variants. The phone began smoking after Green turned it off and placed it in his pocket at the request of the flight crew. While the plane was still at the gate and could safely be evacuated, reports suggest that the phone (which was left on the plane for obvious reasons) burned through the carpet and into the subfloor of the aircraft.
Right now, it’s not clear if this failure was a one-off or a sign that Samsung’s battery problem isn’t as fixed as the company thought it was. At this point, either is possible. The fact is, a certain percentage of smartphones will suffer catastrophic battery failure. Even so, there are battery chemistries that are more-and-less susceptible to thermal runaway. It’s also possible to include safety systems that can react and stop a thermal runaway from causing a catastrophic fire, though I’m not aware of any of these being used in the space-constrained mobile environment, where manufacturers simultaneously slash thickness and push for improved battery capacities.
Right now, the explanation for Samsung’s battery failures is that one of the batteries the company uses was slightly too thick for the battery compartment. While this did not prevent the battery cover from fitting on the device, the cells of the lithium-ion battery were slightly compressed and therefore more likely to short-circuit. It’s possible that Samsung truly fixed the problem and this particular failure is unfortunately timed. It’s also possible that either some flawed batteries were mistakenly shipped in new units, or that the company’s initial recall failed to completely address the problem.
If this is a one-off for the replacement devices, Samsung shouldn’t have too much of a problem moving forward — but if more “good” Note 7’s keep catching fire, the company’s entire Note product could be tarnished for good. Earlier, we had praised Samsung’s quick response to the problem, but if it turns out they didn’t catch every instance of failure, it’ll blow up even larger than before.