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Column: The curious case of the exploding battery

It seems like we hear about a new breakthrough in technology every other month and then we never hear about it again. Some of that is over-optimistic, misunderstood and exaggerated reporting. But the rest of it is scale.

Carbon nanotubes are a great example of this. Scientists have been experimenting with carbon nanotubes for years now. They've been using nanotubes in everything from medical devices to batteries.

In every application, nanotubes promise great results. So far the results don't mean much because it's too expensive to make a carbon nanotube battery or a carbon nanotube medical device or a carbon nanotube anything.

The problem is manufacturing them. It's very difficult to make dozens of something at a time for research and development. It's immeasurably more difficult to make millions of something so that you can use them in a product and have that product be cost effective.

It's so difficult that chip-makers like Intel and AMD test each chip to determine how fast it can be safely run and then label the chips accordingly. The difference between an Intel i5 and an Intel i7 is the amount of voltage that can be run safely through them. You may have heard of overclocking a CPU. That is when someone runs more voltage through the CPU than it's rated for.

If you haven't done this before, I don't suggest you try. The CPU will generate more heat and you need to be careful to add extra cooling to compensate for the heat. Even with the extra cooling, the chip can still malfunction and fail. Even if the chip doesn't fail right away, overclocking will shorten the life of the chip

One of the things that Apple has done so well is streamline the manufacturing process. One of the many changes that Tim Cook made while he was chief operating officer was to place the assembly plants next to the parts manufacturing plants. The results of the streamlined process are reduced costs and better quality products.

Even with one of the best manufacturing processes in the world, Apple products still have problems. The iPhone 6 was infamously bendable and now we're finding that the iPhone 6 has issues with the touchscreen that don't appear until after almost two years of use.

These kinds of manufacturing issues slip by even the most watchful companies.

The most recent issue with cellphones has been with the new Samsung Galaxy Note 7. The Note 7 has been "exploding" and catching on fire. The only thing Samsung has said about it is that the Note 7 has a bad battery cell (lithium-ion batteries contain many different compartments called cells) that will sometimes overheat, causing it to expand and then burst. The burst battery cell will light on fire, causing the rest of cells in the battery to expand and burst also.

If the battery is big enough, you can end up with quite a fire. And the Note 7 has one of the biggest batteries in cellphones today.

It is estimated that a very small percentage of Note 7s are effected with this problem, but Samsung has issued a recall on all the Note 7s that they've sold so far. Good move considering these phones have started fires in homes, burnt children and destroyed cars (cars burn very quickly).

If you have a Note 7, everyone from Samsung to the FAA is urging you to turn it off and leave it off. If there's a lesson to be learned here it's this: as a consumer, don't be an early adopter. Unless you absolutely have to have the product now, wait a couple months after a new gadget is released to see if there are any problems with it.

Jason Ogaard is a Red Wing High School graduate and a software engineer in the Denver. Contact him at jason.ogaard@gmail.com.

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