Exploding laptop reveals burning issues

You're balancing a box capable of reaching 600°C in a second on your lap. If something goes wrong, the meltdown could be global
Written by Leader , Contributor

Business seminars can be dull affairs, with little enlightenment and even less entertainment. A recent meeting in Japan suffered from quite the opposite, though, when a Dell laptop spectacularly caught fire. Nobody was hurt and the pictures are amusing – but they illustrate what could be an explosive change in the way we use mobile technology.

As batteries become ever more powerful, the amount of energy stored in smaller and smaller spaces keeps increasing. So does their ability to liberate all that energy in short order. A typical laptop pack can hold around 60Wh, which doesn't sound very much. Deliver that power in 30 seconds, though, and you're looking at 7kW. You really don't want that landing in your lap.

When a lithium ion battery goes off, it can do so with a vengeance. A short circuit within a cell can see the temperature soar to 600°C in seconds, with hot, caustic material pouring from the end like a Roman candle. Although cells are designed with multiple safety features, none can withstand temperatures like that, so if one cell goes, the rest in the pack follow in a chain reaction. A laptop pack can have six or even nine cells, which can make for quite a firework display.

Statistics are hard to come by, but figures from the US mobile phone industry suggest around one catastrophic battery failure per year for every quarter of a million users. These can be due to power-supply malfunction, counterfeit battery modules, physical damage to the battery pack or plain old component failure — all of which are less likely in higher-quality, better-controlled laptop designs.

But with 50 million laptops shipped last year and the two-billionth GSM user recently connected, the total number of incidents worldwide may conceivably be in the hundreds.

Even though the risk to any individual user is minimal, it's much higher than any quantifiable risk from radiation — and liable to trigger the sort of panic which sways politically-sensitive regulators.

There's another term for a small device capable of producing vast amounts of energy very quickly: a bomb. One incident on board a plane, and the world of business travel will change beyond recognition: one hint that terrorists were thinking about doing this deliberately, and that change could happen in the blink of an eye. What work could you do overseas without your laptop or mobile phone?

It's time to start planning. Ultra-low-power laptops are one potential solution, but there's no sign of those yet. Thin clients over broadband wireless with rented laptops is another solution — one with other intriguing advantages. However, this will require sane wireless data tariffs, sane licensing and sane architectures. There are opportunities here, for those with vision and fortitude.

Everyone must be prepared. The world of mobile technology as we know it could blow up overnight.


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