After watching Samsung's exploding phone fiasco this past year, I took comfort knowing that the likelihood my iPhone would suddenly combust was slim. However, after hearing about a recent incident in Wisconsin, iPhone owners may have reason to worry.
According to a man named Xai Thao, his iPhone 4s short-circuited last year, causing a fire in his home. Together with State Farm, he's suing Apple for $75,000 in damages.
Thao is suing Apple on the grounds that the company sold him a dangerous, unsafe, and defective phone. The lawsuit he filed in US district court asserts that the house fire was a direct consequence of the phone's faulty battery short-circuiting and then heating up. Thao nor anyone else ever replaced the phone's battery, so he believes all blame must solely be placed on Apple.
Generally, iPhone owners have nothing to worry about. Rarely do stories come out about the phones catching fire or exploding, and they tend to be pretty reliable devices. The iPhone 4s may be an older model, but it still shouldn't be dangerous or easily combustible.
Although they are dependable phones, the same part that caused those Samsung's to explode could potentially cause the same issue in iPhones: the lithium-ion battery. Used in essentially all smartphones and many other electronics, this battery works more efficiently and reliably than phone batteries of the past while also being significantly smaller.
However, the batteries are certainly not without fault. Lithium-ion batteries contain a delicate and volatile mixture of chemicals that have a narrow — and I mean narrow — window of optimal operating temperatures. For example, if your phone battery is designed to work at its best at 80°F, then it will only deliver 50% capacity at 0°F. So if it's a super chilly or extra hot day, your battery likely isn't performing as well as it could.
Moreover, the only thing preventing lithium-ion batteries from short-circuiting is a slip of polypropylene that keeps electrodes in the battery from touching. Should the electrons come into contact, the battery starts to warm up. Since they contain a flammable electrolyte, this can cause the battery to combust once it comes into contact with oxygen. This is the issue that occurred with the exploding Samsung phones and could happen with any lithium-ion battery-powered phone that has inadequate thermal management or a defect.
For owners of older phones — like the iPhone 4s, be particularly wary of this. As devices age, the non-removable lithium-ion batteries inside of them can bloat due to an excess of oxygen getting trapped inside. If you notice the rear panel or screen bulging out on your phone, it's definitely time to get your battery replaced — and stat. Better yet, get an entirely new phone altogether.
Before you panic, know that the odds of your phone bursting into flames are nearly non-existent. Billions of devices are equipped with this type of battery and rarely do they ever experience this issue. K.M. Abraham — a professor at Northeastern University and a pioneer of the lithium-ion battery — explained to Consumer Reports that the chances of this happening are less than one in a million. You're actually more likely to win an Oscar or get injured by a toilet than to have your phone's battery explode.
Although it's unlikely your smartphone will combust, it isn't impossible. The jury is still out on whether Xai Thao's iPhone 4s actually caused his house to catch on fire, but rest assured knowing that it's unlikely it'll happen to you.