Why the cheap battery market is like the ‘wild west’

The cheap battery market blamed for an increase in fires in devices such as mobile phones and laptops has been dubbed the ‘wild west’ by a battery expert.

Many people are turning to cheap batteries for their electronic devices but they simply don’t know the quality of the battery they are buying … and some will not be as safe as the manufacturers’ own brand.

Scares over the safety of batteries hit the headlines in 2016 when the Samsung Note 7 mobile phone was recalled amid safety fears when some batteries overheated and caught fire.

There is now an ongoing problem with batteries in Apple MacBooks made between 2015 and 2017 which have been recalled and are banned from all aircraft amid fears the batteries may overheat and become a fire risk.

If the manufacturers are having problems with their batteries it doesn’t bear thinking about how unsafe some of the cheap, unregulated batteries can be.

According to CNBC news Apple has said it doesn’t want customers replacing Apple batteries with cheaper ones. Repair experts discovered that a menu inside the iPhone settings app will display a warning message if the iPhone battery wasn’t replaced by an Apple store or authorised servicer.

Apple says: “This information is there to help protect our customers from damaged, poor quality or used batteries which can lead to safety or performance issues.”

The company recommends that customers should get the battery replaced by Apple or an authorised service centre.

Nadim Maluf, CEO of Qnovo which makes software that monitors the health and flow of power inside batteries for devices including Android phones, says fake replica batteries that look authentic are a growing problem, not only for Apple but for many electronics companies.

Mr Maluf described the battery supply chain as currently the “wild west” but will be increasingly monitored and controlled by the device companies as batteries become bigger and more critical to the functioning of a smartphone and features like 5G increase the amount of power devices need.

He added: “In China people are amazingly good when a new model is launched by Apple or Samsung or LG, taking the battery out, taking the dimensions and making a replica. Who knows what’s inside as it is usually made by 2nd and 3rd and 4th tier manufacturers.”

He warned that people buy fake batteries online or some repair shops buy them from unauthorised sources, adding that these batteries can have chemistry problems which make them swell up, eventually leading to a fire.

It’s a real concern on flights. After all, nearly everyone on a flight has a smartphone and a good number of people also are carrying laptops, battery packs and other gadgets.

According to the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Security and Hazardous Materials Safety there have been at least 265 air or airport incidents involving lithium batteries since 1991.

While most overheating devices can be placed in special fire containment bags such as AvSax, passenger flights without them have had to make costly emergency landings because of what the FAA sometimes calls “a dangerous evolution of heat.”

AvSax are now on more than 15,373 aircraft operated by 75 airline companies across the world – including some of the biggest and best-known. 

AvSax  – which won the Queen’s Award for Enterprise in 2018 - has been used 31 times to deal with emergencies since the start of 2017. Deployment is so effective that extremely expensive diversions to alternate airports are avoided.