We were taking notes: How the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 melted

There’s only a very slim chance that you haven’t heard about Samsung’s melting phones. The South Korean electronics giant has had to recall, replace and finally, just yesterday, the company admitted the ‘irredeemability’ of the situation and “decided to halt sales and production of the Galaxy Note 7”.

What happened?

The new addition to the Samsung Note family was launched on the 19th of August and not even up to a month after its launch, reports began circulating that Samsung’s Galaxy Note 7s were overheating and catching fire around the globe. It was absurd. The company is no newbie to smartphone manufacturing. Samsung had quickly risen to takeover most of Nokia’s smartphone market share globally in 2012 with their Android operating system. Since then Samsung has maintained a good position in the game, giving Apple a good run for its top spot.

The first report was official report was from a St. Petersburg, Florida man who says his jeep burst into flames after the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 that was charging inside it burst into flames.

The jeep burst into flames
The jeep burst into flames

Although there had been no human casualty in the fire incident, the effect was such that Samsung began an immediate voluntary recall of the phablets. By the time this fire incident was reported, Samsung had already received just under 100 reports of overheating phones in the United States alone; 26 of the reports claimed there had been burns and some property damage.

What had happened was that the rechargeable lithium-ion battery had some electrical malfunctions that made the batteries overheat and when the temperature got high enough, the phone could implode as a result of the extreme temperature.

According to a Dr. Donald R. Sadoway of the John F. Elliott Professor of Materials Chemistry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology:

“What happened there was, somehow during the manufacturing process, very tiny particles of metal had ended up in the electrolyte . . . under the action of electric current, these metal fragments aligned, and they eventually formed an unbroken chain of metal from one electrode to another. So then you’ve got the current shorting through this filamentary wire, if you will, so you’ve turned the inner electrode gap into a toaster oven. That causes all of the current to short, and generates a lot of heat, and that causes the electrolyte to bloat, and then the next thing you know, it explodes.

If the temperature gets high enough . . . at some point, if you get up to about 400-500 degrees Centigrade, the metal oxide in the negative electrode actually starts liberating oxygen. And that’s really dangerous, because now, instead of having a fire . . . getting its oxygen from the air surrounding it, it’s getting its oxygen from inside the battery itself. The term of art is, this has now become a bomb. You’ve got fuel and oxygen in the same place at the same time.”

This was no unique situation to Samsung. Many smartphone manufacturers opt for the lithium-ion batteries because they are much cheaper and offer longer lasting battery shelf life. The same situation plagued Sony laptop batteries back in 2008 and the company had to recall about 35,000 laptop batteries.

Even here, many will recall that there were spam messages making rounds that receiving phone calls while charging BlackBerry smartphones could increase the chances of explosions.

In this case, the the high risk of explosion occurs when users are charging their devices. According to Dr. Sadoway, this could be because while (charging), users are forcing current through the device and “somehow there is a side reaction that is very different from just recharging the battery. And that starts charging the battery, and then the thing goes into thermal runaway.”

This was tacitly admitted in Samsung’s official explanation:

“Based on our investigation, we learned that there was an issue with the battery cell. An overheating of the battery cell occurred when the anode-to-cathode came into contact which is a very rare manufacturing process error. We are working with multiple suppliers to ensure that a rigorous inspection process is conducted to ensure the quality of our replacement units and we do not anticipate any further battery issues.”

Recall and replacements

Early September, Samsung issued a voluntary recall of all Galaxy Note 7s sold before the 15th of September. The US Consumer Product Safety Commission website advertised for concerned users to either return or replace their phones.

The company had to recall at least 2.5 million of the new Notes across 10 worldwide markets. One million returns and more than 500,000 replacement were shipped to carrier and retail stores in the U.S.

And in Nigeria?

Although the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 was yet to be launched in Nigeria when all these started, Nigerians who got their devices from the United States’ market were already using the phone (per usual) and the many users of Samsung devices had very little succour until the 18th of September when the Consumer Protection Council (CPC) issued a 7-day ultimatum to Samsung Electronics West Africa Limited demanding that Samsung supplies detailed information on the full status of its compliance with the global directive of Samsung on the recall of the Samsung Galaxy Note 7.

Identifying affected devices

On the 19th of September, Samsung announced a Software update that will enable the Note 7 owners distinguish whether or not their smartphone was affected and included in the recall. The software which is now active enables the device to display a green battery icon in the phone’s status bar to indicate whether or not the phone has been affected.

Samsung Electronics West Africa Limited has announced postponement of the launch of Samsung new Galaxy Note7 in Nigeria. This is sequel to the postponement of sales of the device globally due to isolated battery cell problems. Although the Galaxy Note7 has not been released in Nigeria, current Galaxy Note7 users are kindly advised to visit the nearest Samsung Service Centre for immediate assistance about replacement program. All Galaxy Note7 purchased are eligible for replacement despite the original place of purchase. We acknowledge the inconvenience this may have caused in the market, but this is to ensure that Samsung continues to deliver the highest quality products to its customers. Samsung is completely committed to fixing this problem and ensuring the highest level of safety and satisfaction for its customers.

A post shared by Samsung Mobile Nigeria (@samsung_nigeria) on

The above post was put up on Samsung Nigeria’s Instagram on the 20th of September to assuage Nigerian users.

Reports of in flight scares

Apparently it was not only cars that were exploding. The overheating devices had also become an in flight disaster prone item.

In the United States, major airlines had already started giving specific warnings about keeping Samsung Galaxy Note 7s switched off once aboard. The Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority also issued a statement banning the use of the devices aboard Nigerian airlines on the 20th of September.

Replacement phones also affected

The beginning of the end for Samsung’s Galaxy Note 7 was the 6th of October when a Samsung Galaxy Note 7 almost caught fire on Southwest Airlines flight leaving Louisville, Kentucky. The plane was evacuated after a passenger’s new Samsung phone began emitting smoke. The owner of the phone, Brian Green said the phone was a replacement which he picked up on September 21st.

Samsung’s response?

“Until we are able to retrieve the device, we cannot confirm that this incident involves the new Note 7. We are working with the authorities and Southwest now to recover the device and confirm the cause. Once we have examined the device we will have more information to share”

The end!

Finally, yesterday, the company admitted that it had failed so far to fix the problem with the batteries that was causing the overheating and they would halt production of the phones henceforth.

The statement reads:

“We recently readjusted the production volume for thorough investigation and quality control, but putting consumer safety as top priority, we have reached a final decision to halt production of Galaxy Note 7s,” the company said.

“For the benefit of consumers’ safety, we stopped sales and exchanges of the Galaxy Note 7 and have consequently decided to stop production.” 

The final halt of production of the phablets and the events that preceded it will certainly have a lasting impact on not only finances of the $211 billion company but also its brand equity. The report from Wall Street yesterday is that $17 billion from Samsung Electronics’ market value has dropped as its shares tumbled 8%, the biggest one-day decline in eight years.

This morning, the company has already cut its preliminary third-quarter earnings guidance confirming that most of the holiday sales will be snatched by Apple and even Huawei.

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