RealTime IT News

Will a New Battery Snafu Prompt Changes?

Tokyo-based Matsushita Electrical Industrial, parent of Panasonic USA, is offering to replace 6,000 laptop batteries it said may catch fire due to a manufacturing defect.

The batteries in question were manufactured between April 2005 and May 2005 and were sold with the CFW4 Let's Note laptop, a model that is only available in Japan, Panasonic spokesman Jim Reilly told internetnews.com.

Reilly noted that the manufacturer of the batteries is neither Sony nor Matsushita, but said that he could not reveal the name of the battery maker in question.

Reilly said the company became aware that the batteries could catch fire while repairing laptops that had been dropped by consumers.

Although not a recall, this is another in a string of industry failures with regards to laptop batteries.

The swap also involves a far smaller number of batteries than those concerned by the recent recalls by Dell and Apple , which involved 4.1 million and 1.1 million batteries, respectively.

Reilly had no immediate information on the cost of the recall or the steps being taken to remediate the issue.

Simon Forge, a partner with Ptak Noel & Associates, said it was not uncommon for laptop manufacturers to subcontract battery manufacturing to third parties, which seems to be the case in this event.

Given the spate of battery-related incidents, Forge predicted that manufacturers will increase pressure on their partners to improve quality assurance and anomaly-detection programs.

"There's going to be huge pressure on the OEMs to look at the processes and the qualities of the products being used," he told internetnews.com.

"What you need is a much better continuity throughout the layers of the cell structure used inside the battery."

Gaps in the cell structure allow explosive gasses to build up, making it possible for them to explode under high pressure or if the equipment gets hot.

That said, Forge noted that laptop batteries, once thought to be the Achilles Heel of mobile computing, have dramatically improved their power-to-weight ratios since the mid-1990s.

"They've made a hundred years of progress in 10 years," he said.

"Now we're in the era of Lithium ion. Lithium polymers and Lithium carbonates will produce even lower ratios," he said.

Forge said that fewer batteries will explode as laptop manufacturers find new ways of reducing their power requirements.

Screens and back-lighting account for 80 percent of power consumption.

Laptop manufacturers are developing new display technologies that reduce the demand for electrical current, he said.

"The pressure for higher-power batteries will tend to level off," Forge predicted.

According to Forge, there are currently over 100 million laptops currently in service; he pegged the market at the low hundreds of millions of units per year.

In contrast, there are more than 2 billion cell phones in service, with 700 million new handsets sold per year.

"The market [for batteries] is being set by the mobile market," said Forge.