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8/16/2006
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Despite Dell Recall, Li-Ion Batteries Seem Irreplaceable

Experts say a battery alternative probably won't be available for years. Instead, users will have to settle for changes in the computer design, such as revamping components, particularly microprocessors, to run cooler and demand less power.

Despite the safety issues raised in Dell's recall of millions of lithium-ion batteries, it's unlikely the most widely used power source for laptops today will be replaced anytime soon, experts said Wednesday.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission said it is reviewing all Sony-made lithium-ion batteries for fire hazards. Sony made the batteries for Dell, and has acknowledged a manufacturing flaw. Non-Sony batteries, however, have also had similar problems.

But despite the review, many experts believe it's unlikely a battery alternative would be available for years. Instead, changes will more likely have to come in the way of computer design and building components, particularly microprocessors, that run cooler and demand less power.

Lithium-ion batteries are found in most laptops and other mobile computing devices. The technology outperforms the alternative nickel metal hydride battery as a power source that has to last a long period of time during steady use.

"Lithium ion is excellent for long runtime, low-drain applications," Norm England, president and chief executive of the Portable Rechargeable Battery Association, said. "It's the technology of choice."

On rare occasions, however, the battery can burst into flames. Dell decided to recall 4.1 million Sony batteries following a half a dozen incidents since December in which laptops had overheated or caught fire. Similar incidents have also sparked recalls by Hewlett-Packard, Dell's No. 1 rival, and Apple Computer.

In the latest incident, metal particles within the cavity of the battery pack contributed to the problem, Sony spokesman Rick Clancy said. These microscopic particles can't be avoided in the manufacturing process, but the battery maker tries to minimize the number and size.

Clancy declined to discuss the specific findings in the Dell batteries, but said, in general, that a fire hazard can result when conditions in the laptop, such as rising temperatures or the recharging process, cause the particles to move aggressively in the battery cavity. If a particle pierces the lining protecting the battery cell, a spark can result, igniting the highly flammable lithium salt electrolyte inside.

Besides its own manufacturing flaw, Sony said other technology within Dell's laptops contributed to the danger. The consumer electronics manufacturer, however, declined to give specifics.

"We acknowledge the presence of metal particles, and are supporting the recall," Clancy said. "System configuration variances have also been noted, but we're not specifying those."

Sony is expected to pick up the cost of the recall, which analysts told Reuters news agency could cost from $85 million to $430 million.

While there may be steps computer manufacturers could take to improve safety, replacing lithium-ion batteries with an equal alternative is not one of them. It's the best technology available today, and a replacement is unlikely over the next 10 years.

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