PC vendors blame batteries – not notebook design

A group of PC vendors met recently to draft an improved standard for battery manufacturing

Following the alarming number of notebook battery recalls this year, a group of PC vendors met recently to seek safer lithium ion cells, and resolved to draft an improved standard for battery manufacturing and quality control by the second quarter of 2007.

About 20 representatives, including people from Dell, Hewlett-Packard, the Lenovo Group and Polycom met on September 13 in San Jose, California, says Kimberly Sterling, a spokeswoman for IPC, an electronics industry group whose full name is the Association Connecting Electronics Industries.

Sterling says some additional companies participated, but declined to name them or indicate how many there were.

The companies are trying to allay consumer fears after a handful of batteries in notebook PCs overheated, some bursting into flames. However, their efforts may be hindered by the absence of Sony Electronics and possibly Apple Computer as well, since those companies may not abide by the standard without having an opportunity to help draft it. Sony won’t commit to following the IPC advice until it collects further information, says Sony spokesman John Dolak.

Sony skipped the meeting because it wasn’t invited, Dolak says. Instead, the company has representatives on similar boards; Sony executive Doug Smith is chairman of Rechargeable Battery Recycling, a trade and lobbying group sponsored by battery manufacturers.

Apple did not return calls about the meeting, which was run by committee chairman John Grosso, an executive at Dell.

In August, Dell recalled 4.1 million notebook PC batteries, and Apple recalled 1.8 million notebook batteries. Sony made all the faulty batteries and blamed the problem on short circuits caused by a manufacturing flaw that left microscopic shards of metal floating in the lithium ion cell.

Polycom attended the meeting because it had recalled 27,700 of its wireless conference phones in February 2006. It is unclear whether Sony manufactured those batteries, too.

Another hurdle for the nascent IPC standard is criticism from some experts that well-designed laptops shouldn’t catch fire even if they do have faulty batteries.

If PC vendors had used standard safety precautions in their notebooks, the defective batteries would have merely shut down, not overheated, says Donald Sadoway, a chemistry professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“The technology came out in the mid-90s; we know how to build a safe lithium ion battery,” he says.

Engineers typically avoid overheating in lithium ion batteries with safety features such as micro-circuitry which monitors the charging process, an additive that makes the electrolyte less flammable or a porous polypropylene spacer that melts at high temperatures, automatically shutting down the battery’s chemical reaction.

Sadoway pointed out that it is PC manufacturers who typically specify requirements to battery suppliers.

“So the question in my mind is ‘Why are people not building batteries with these safety precautions?’ Something is wrong here, and I believe it has to do with human behaviour, not electrochemistry,” Sadoway says.

“In our attempts to bring portable power to the masses, we may have [become] too aggressive in our cost cutting. If you want something that’s quickly recharged, delivers high bursts of power on demand and is cheap, cheap, cheap, I would say that’s over-specified.”

Sony agrees that variations in PC and battery design can make a difference in how they handle short circuits. After manufacturing, Sony’s cells are configured into battery packs by either Sony itself or by third-party contractors such as Simplo Technology of Taiwan. Depending on the contractor, the batteries can use a variety of safety mechanisms, says Sony spokesman Rick Clancy.

“Within battery packs, there are different specifications related to charging and voltage, and regulators that monitor temperature to indicate overheating and shut it down,” Clancy says. “But we’ve pretty much agreed with our customers not to point fingers at each other, so I’m not going to get into that.”

PC designers also make decisions that can affect overheating, such as specifying batteries with a range of six to nine cells, and placing them in varying points in proximity to heat sources such as the processor and charger, he says.

Another aspect of computer design that could aggravate faulty batteries is pulse charging, a method of recharging batteries very quickly when they’re plugged into a wall outlet, says industry analyst Rob Enderle.

Dell disputed this point, saying it was not aware of any connection between pulse-charging and overheated batteries, although it does use the technology, says Dell's chief technology officer, Kevin Kettler.

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