Toshiba touts slimmer, stronger batteries

The world is turning miniature, with small batteries for small devices

It has taken the consumer's desire for ever-slimmer gadgets to get the juices flowing in the battery industry.

On Monday, Toshiba publicly unveiled Advanced Lithium Batteries (ALB), which will allow electronics manufacturers to create small devices with the staying power of larger ones.

Similar to lithium-polymer batteries, which are made of a gel, ALB technology derives its power from a polymerlike liquid. Both can be molded to about 1mm, compared with standard lithium-ion batteries that are about 5mm thick.

What makes ALB superior to the others is that its slim figure packs the energy punch of its larger counterpart. ALB costs about 20 percent more than lithium-ion batteries but slightly less than lithium-polymer ones.

Currently, lithium-ion batteries are found in 90 percent of notebooks and 60 percent to 70 percent of cell phones, said Joel Tax, an analyst at research firm Santa Clara Consulting.

Toshiba's announcement, along with other recent industry developments, shows that the battery sector is changing. Unlike other components, which often move speedily from blueprint to saleable good, battery technology often takes years to develop and come to market.

The Japanese manufacturer isn't the only company interested in more advanced batteries. IBM has discussed using polymer battery technologies. And on Monday, Motorola and National Semiconductor announced plans to team on new concepts for lithium-ion and lithium-polymer batteries.

Although Toshiba officially introduced ALB on Monday, the company said that one mobile phone manufacturer and one handheld computer maker have already started using the technology. And notebook manufacturers shouldn't be far behind.

Ritch Russ, director of Toshiba's battery division, said Ericsson is using the technology in its T28 World phone. He wouldn't disclose which handheld manufacturer is using ALB but described it as one of the biggest names in the industry.

Russ added that Toshiba is working with a number of notebook manufacturers. He expects ALB technology to be available in notebooks by the end of the year. However, Toshiba's own notebook division does not believe ALB will be ready by then.

Steve Andler, vice president of marketing at Toshiba's notebook division, indicated that prototype laptops using ALB have been developed but that the road from prototype to finished product is a long one.

"ALB is not yet producible in large quantities. And for it to be in notebooks by the end of the year is optimistic," Andler said. "Sometime in 2002 would be more realistic."

Even though ALB is new to the public, Toshiba is already producing 1.7 million ALB battery cells per month, and it plans to make 3 million battery cells per month by the end of the year. By comparison, the company produces 7 million to 8 million lithium-ion battery cells per month, Russ said.

Notebook manufacturers actually touted lithium-polymer batteries about two years ago, but the first polymer batteries didn't last as long as manufacturers had hoped. And because they were about 25 percent to 30 percent more expensive than lithium-ion batteries, manufacturers were cool to the idea.

One of the first notebooks to use lithium-polymer batteries was Mitsubishi's Pedion in 1997. Hewlett-Packard licensed the Pedion and rebranded it as Sojourn, which was priced at $5,799 and was available for about a year.

Lithium-polymer batteries have other problems besides high cost. They tend to swell about four times more than ALB and lithium-ion batteries when they are exposed to heat. In addition, heat reduces the number of times a lithium-polymer battery can be recharged.

"Polymer wasn't the magic bullet that people initially thought. It didn't give you better battery life than lithium, but it did give you the flexibility to make devices thinner," Russ said.

Tax added that the battery industry will focus on lithium for at least the next five years but that other technologies are on the horizon.

"The future is fuel cells," Russ said. "We've been struggling to keep up with demands from device makers, but fuel cells could give us the leap to keep up."

Russ said he could envision products using fuel cell technology in three to five years.

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