As dark as these incidences can be, it's sometimes easy to make fun of geeky toys going haywire. But many of these fires trace their origins to a single cause: bad batteries. Specifically, a type called a lithium-ion battery, the kind of fuel cell that runs so many of the world's electronic gadgets. Laptops, iPhones, toys, small robots and electric vehicles use lithium-ion cells. They're small, nimble and have spent the better part of a decade generally not catching fire.
Now there's a media panic around fresh lithium-ion-powered devices. Ahead of Christmas, Amazon put a ban on hoverboard sales, wiping the industry clean of dozens of vendors, decimating the business and shutting down a number of companies. Meanwhile, an e-cigarette blew up in a young mother's face, scarring her for life. Drone batteries have caught fire while on chargers.
It's like 2006 all over again.
An explosive history: Lithium-ion gadgets, even the ones we think of as generally safe, used to blow up all the time. In the mid-2000s, when computers and devices were becoming smaller and slimmer, factory fires were common. After house fires and a few burn victims in 2006, Sony recalled 340,000 laptop batteries. A 2008 explosion at LG's battery factory threatened the entire global supply of lithium-ion fuel cells.
Lithium fires are especially dangerous because they can't be put out with water. You must either smother them or let them burn out on their own.
Lithium-ion fuel cells can catch fire for a number of reasons, almost all of which have to do with faulty manufacturing. Batteries that are poorly made might catch fire because they overload while charging, or because debris was introduced during the manufacturing process. A management system that keeps a battery from overcharging can be installed on the battery with a small chip, but this is an extra cost in the manufacturing process.
Faulty manufacturing is almost always the cause of fuel-cell fires.
"The separator in the cell that separates positive and negative electrodes is thin, and any small metal particle can cause a disruption or short," Isidor Buchmann, founder and CEO of Cadex Electronics, told Mic. "So they had to improve that by making dust-proof environments that are pressurized, so the main brands are very safe."
Since then, companies have gotten it together by raising their standards to prevent the economic, industrial and medical disasters that come with faulty lithium-ion batteries catching fire. A system called U.N. testing, a series of stress tests that include dropping and puncturing batteries so that they're safe for air transport, is now used throughout the United States and Europe to ensure batteries aren't fragile.
But now, new actors are taking advantage of a boom in new devices, offering up cheap, faulty options to young companies.
The battery industry is prone to corruption. Bad batteries often show up in the media with the disclaimer that they probably came from China, stereotyping Asian manufacturing as reckless or low quality. But the problem isn't necessarily the location.
Most major manufacturers, including Samsung and LG Chem, make their batteries in China. The issue is that some of these Chinese batteries are coming from small, local shops with no standards and extra-cheap prices.
"We won't do business with a Chinese battery company unless we audit their systems," House of Batteries owner Don West told Mic. "When you make a lithium battery and you're winding the plates around each other, you can't get one particle of dust inside that battery. Many of the Chinese companies don't take that seriously."
House of Batteries makes battery packs for hospitals and military equipment, and West flies to China frequently to inspect new factories. He's seen places where the dust billows in from open windows into the space where the cells are being made, and factories where they do U.N. testing in-house without an objective third-party auditor, and actually certify themselves. Out of the 70 factories West has audited, House of Batteries works with only five.
Some factories bypass the auditing process and certify themselves.
The companies manufacturing electronic cigarettes, drones and hoverboards aren't technological giants — they're infantile shops dealing with a sudden influx of demand. They're looking to make their gadgets cheaply and quickly, and without the R&D, investment capital or decades of institutional experience, they're working with whatever they can get their hands on.
There are smaller, less reputable suppliers more than willing to meet that demand. Looking on digital markets like Alibaba, you can buy lithium-ion batteries in bulk, at an enormous markdown from what you might pay from an institutional manufacturer like LG or Toshiba.
But West says that the small tech companies aren't buying the batteries wholesale, for the most part. Hoverboard and e-cigarette manufacturers are instead using a Chinese "contract manufacturer" — a company that makes the entire product top to bottom. And these manufacturers are using whatever products are local, cheap or within their existing network, far from the eyes of the American distributor.
What can you do? You can interrogate a brand about what batteries they're using. Some brands of hoverboards, vapes and drones — like TechDrift and Koogo, who use Samsung lithium-ion batteries — will openly brag about their battery suppliers. Several brands, including scooter company Razor, refused to provide comment to Mic about where their batteries come from.
The United States doesn't require corporations to be sufficiently transparent with their supply chain.
You could also go through a trusted vendor — Amazon now has stringent reporting requirements for which hoverboard manufacturers are allowed on their platform. It might be imperfect, but it's better from buying them at a pop-up kiosk.
Or just opt out and wait. If hoverboards and vapes stick around, manufacturers wanting to become trusted brands will do so by earning that trust. Disasters could lead to regulations that impose stringent manufacturing standards; to date, the U.S. doesn't require corporations to be sufficiently transparent about their supply chain. Fledgling industries meant to cater to small communities of techies and early adopters may eventually become household brands, and regulations will follow.
"If you go back 10 years, there were cellphones and laptops exploding," Buchmann told Mic. "But somehow they've become better. I'd like to think that it's an evolution, that these guys will learn and switch to higher-quality batteries."