PC vendors blame batteries, not notebook design

PC vendors resolved last week to draft new safety standards for making lithium ion batteries, without input from battery manufacturer Sony.

Following a series of massive notebook PC battery recalls in August, a group of PC vendors met last week to seek safer lithium ion cells, resolving 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, Lenovo Group and Polycom met Sept. 13 in California, said Kimberly Sterling, a spokeswoman for IPC, an electronics industry group whose full name is the Association Connecting Electronics Industries. Sterling said 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 and injuring their users. 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 wouldn't commit to following the IPC advice until it collects further information, said Sony spokesman John Dolak.

Sony skipped the meeting because it was never invited, Dolak said. Instead, the company has representatives on similar boards; Sony executive Doug Smith is chairman of the 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. Sony announced another defect in its batteries on Monday, when Toshiba offered to exchange 340,000 notebook batteries for fear they could suddenly lose power, shutting down the computer without saving users' work.

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, said 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 said.

Engineers typically avoid overheating in lithium ion batteries with safety features such as microcircuitry that 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 behavior, not electrochemistry," Sadoway said.

"In our attempts to bring portable power to the masses, we may have gotten 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 agreed 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, said 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 said. "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 6 to 9 cells, and placing them in various proximity to heat sources such as the processor and charger, he said.

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, said industry analyst Rob Enderle.

Dell disputed that point, saying they are not aware of any connection between pulse charging and overheated batteries, although they do use the technology, according to Dell's chief technology officer, Kevin Kettler.

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