Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Monday 14/8/2006 Sales of asbestos underpants soar as the Dell Exploding Laptop Experience starts to hit home. The unprecedented recall of 4.
Written by Rupert Goodwins, Contributor

Monday 14/8/2006

Sales of asbestos underpants soar as the Dell Exploding Laptop Experience starts to hit home. The unprecedented recall of 4.1 million batteries sets various new records and leaves various new questions in its wake — what actually is the fault? What other battery packs are affected? After all, Sony makes lithium-ion cells for just about everyone. And what exactly is going to happen to the faulty cells?

I've long held lithium-ion batteries in a mixture of gratitude, resentment, fear and awe. Awe, because they store so much power — it's not unusual to see 60 watt hour packs on the back of laptops these days. Fear, because if one of those goes short-circuit, you'll get many kilowatts of energy heating up a mixture of flammable liquid and metal within inches of your danglies. Resentment, because every last manufacturer makes their own unique battery packs for each different model, and lithium-ion begins to decay from the moment it leaves the factory. No matter how carefully you use — or don't use — a pack, it'll be dead in a couple of years. And gratitude, because lithium-ion makes all sorts of fabulous things possible that just can't happen otherwise.

I'm aware that having any emotions towards battery packs is not considered normal, let alone a complex mix of four contradictory vectors. That's why I've left out tenderness — those poor things are incredibly fragile, and need constant cosseting. If you overcharge, undercharge, overdischarge, overheat, freeze, bump or merely look at one with a cutting expression, they burst into tears and, shortly afterwards, into flames. There are considerable electronic smarts in laptops, chargers and the battery packs themselves designed to guard against all those misfortunes, and it's quite possible that some miscalculation in one of those designs is behind the time bombs in our briefcases.

This is also why you can't buy lithium-ion batteries off the shelf for general use — the carnage would be impressive — and we're left with the noble but considerably less capacious nickel metal hydride cells. It also explains why, although lithium-ion technology was invented at Oxford University in the 1970s, it took many years before they arrived in consumer products while the safety issues were ironed out. That was thanks to Sony, which has the most experience in the field, and if it can't get it quite right we really are in trouble.

So don't hold your breath waiting for much better batteries to arrive. So far, all the technologies that are lighter and more powerful are also more dangerous. Some incredibly so, like the one that uses molten sodium chloroaluminate at 250° Celsius. Cool that, you overclockers. The rest just aren't worth bothering with. And are you prepared to switch to a laptop that weighs more and has a third of the battery life? If not, then I'm afraid asbestos underpants are the only way forward. 

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