Bloated batteries are a big deal. Bloated batteries in a brand-new device are a very big deal. And multiple instances of bloated batteries happening worldwide are potentially catastrophic for a consumer electronics company. That’s why I’m following with great concern reports about bloated batteries in iPhone 8 phones being discovered in China, Greece and Canada in the last few days. Because these events are happening just two weeks after the launch of the iPhone 8, it’s clear that they are occurring during unboxing or on the first few charges.

Figure 1: The iPhone 8-a harmless flaw or Apple’s Waterloo? (Source: Forbes)

What’s the problem with a few phones being damaged because of a random manufacturing error, one might ask. Because batteries, in addition to providing power for a device, are capable of catching fire. A bloated battery happens because of a degradatory event inside the battery (unwanted chemical side reactions, short circuit, crimped electrodes, etc.). That leads the hydrocarbon solvents in the electrolyte to break down into their elements, one of which is hydrogen, which at room temperature is a gas. That hydrogen is extremely combustible, especially if it’s near an active electrical circuit. There have been no fires or smoke conditions reported yet, but to a safety official in any government or corporation, most battery fires are preceded by gassing inside the battery, which raises the very real issue of potential fires.

Battery bloated happens quite often—most people have seen or held a device that was at one point ruined by a gassing battery. It almost always happens, however, in a battery very old battery that has already served its useful lifetime and probably should have been discarded already. For a gassing event to happen inside a brand-new battery that has only experienced one or two charge/discharge cycles, the evidence points to a fundamental flaw in battery design or phone design.

How bad can things get for Apple? Just look at what happened with the Samsung Galaxy Note fiasco. Samsung Electronics never publicized the number of phones that experienced a battery problem, but industry scuttlebutt guesses that it was less than 100, with only a handful of fire and smoke condition events happening. Nevertheless, it caused a global aircraft ban, which quickly led to a complete recall of all those phones. The recall itself resulted in about $2 billion in direct costs for Samsung. In an analysis of the damage to the Samsung brand, however, Cairn ERA estimated that the overall losses for the parent company were closer to $17 billion.

For all the alarm bells that are being set off here at Cairn ERA, let’s dampen the panic about Apple. There have only been eight phones that have been reported to show damage so far. It could be a minor distribution of a random manufacturing error. If it’s a little bit more than that, Apple might quickly be able to identify the battery manufacturing line that’s responsible, shut it down and keep making iPhone 8’s without any more issues. I hope for Apple’s sake that the incidents stop here.