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8/16/2006
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Powering Collaboration: Basic Physics and Chemistry

In the knowledge economy, it's not surprising that people expect their electronic devices to be with them everywhere they go - and to work all the time.  Whether it's a laptop, Palm or BlackBerry device, mobile phone, MP3 player, or portable DVD player, they all rely upon one common element to keep them going: the humble battery.

Collaboration requires, among other things, raw power to keep knowledge workers going.

Yet despite our ability to place more and more computing power on a small chip, the battery industry lags behind; there is no Moore's Law for batteries.  In fact, given today's science, the more energy a battery manufacturer tries to store in a small battery, the more dangerous and volatile it seems to become.  Earlier this year, a Dell laptop burst into flames at a conference in Japan.  Fortunately, someone took photographs using a cameraphone and the story eventually made it to the New York Times after spreading like wildfire (pun most definitely intended) across the Web.  

Most knowledge workers simply don't realize the limitations of these devices and just how much energy is contained in the battery.  Of course, when one is sitting somewhere lacking an electrical outlet and the laptop battery runs out of power in the middle of an important meeting, the limitations become a tad more clear.

The shortcomings of current battery technology were brought to the forefront this week as Dell announced the recall of 4.1 million Dell-branded lithium-ion batteries with cells manufactured by Sony.  The company acknowledged that, under certain ("rare") conditions, the batteries could overheat and ignite.  

What can be done?

At this point, very little.  Scientists are running into the basic limitations of physics and chemistry, and lithium-ion batteries are considered state-of-the-art, despite their chemical composition (carbon, oxygen, and a flammable fluid) that makes them subject to spontaneous combustion.  In the case of the Dell batteries, the electrolyte had been contaminated during manufacturing by metallic particles that increased the likelihood of ignition.  Researchers are working to develop batteries that use less flammable materials but at the same time they have to develop batteries which last at least as long as what we have today.

What really has to happen is that we have to rethink how we provide power to devices that power collaboration.  This will not be easy; the portable rechargeable battery industry is estimated to be a $6.2 billion per annum market, according to some sources producing more than one billion batteries.  Change comes slowly when that much is at stake.

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