Mobile Computing: Laptop Battery Safety, Part 2

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Last week I covered some of the basic questions being asked about laptop battery safety risks, in the wake of Dell's recent massive battery recall. This week, I've got tips on how you can protect yourself, along with advice on how to make your batteries last longer. I've also included an update on what's being done to make batteries safer.

Protect Your Batteries and Yourself

Proper care and replacement. Avoid repeatedly draining batteries all the way. Lithium ion batteries are said to do better if not repeatedly run to failure. It's better to recharge them after each use. These batteries will typically last from 300 to 500 charge-discharge cycles. Depending on your usage pattern, that would likely mean you get from a year to a few years of use before a battery needs to be replaced. You'll be able to tell when you need a new one: Batteries typically don't fail completely; instead they keep your device powered for noticeably shorter periods.

Don't leave your gadgets in the car. The interior temperature can easily top 140 degrees Fahrenheit in the direct sun, which will hasten the battery's loss of capacity. If you must leave your device in the car, try to do so for only a short time. If it's going to be more than a half hour, put it into the trunk, which will heat up less quickly than the glass-enclosed cabin.

Never open a battery. Lithium ion batteries contain safety mechanisms that, when damaged, can cause the battery to ignite or explode.

Pack batteries carefully. Wrap each spare lithium ion battery you're packing separately with a cloth, a blanket, or some other nonmetallic material. Cover the battery contact points with tape. A rapid discharge caused by a short-circuit can cause any battery to overheat.

Pack your laptop in a padded case. A defective or damaged battery can create an electrical spark if it is jostled. By packing your laptop (or other lithium ion battery-powered device) tightly in a well-padded or shock-absorbent case, you can minimize the risks of triggering a fire.

Buy replacements from the manufacturer. It's easy to find inexpensive replacement batteries for your laptop on the Internet. However, these batteries may be unable to properly vent excess heat or they may lack the circuitry needed shut down before overheating occurs. Buying power cells from your computer vendor also makes it less likely you'll get a counterfeit part.

Take recalls seriously. Periodically, computer makers issue battery recalls. In 2005, for instance, there were four notebook battery recalls--from Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Apple, and Battery-Biz (a retailer)--according to data from the Consumer Product Safety Commission. If your laptop is among those with potentially hazardous batteries, follow the manufacturer's advice.

Battery Safety: An Ongoing Topic

The National Transportation Safety Board held a two-day hearing in July 2006 to discuss the potential dangers of lithium ion batteries on passenger and cargo planes and what, if anything, should be done about them. Discussions have focused on strengthening manufacturing guidelines and potentially restricting the use of lithium ion batteries on passenger jets. As of this writing, no new regulations have been proposed.

Lithium ion battery technology is continually being studied with an eye to improving safety as well as performance. Long-term, alternative technologies are being considered: Micro fuel cells for example, will likely soon provide an economical, disposable, and environmentally friendly power source that can be bought off the shelf.

A lot of attention has been put on fuel cell safety, because the most common fuel for the micro cells is methanol, a flammable liquid. Most observers expect any safety issues to be addressed before production ramps up, and you can bet the industry will have to jump through the appropriate regulatory hoops before products hit the market. For example, current regulations prohibit carrying methanol on board an airplane. It will take a good while--and a lot of proof that the products are safe--to get methanol-based fuel cells into business class. Read "Panasonic Shows Laptop Fuel Cell" for more on this topic.

Medis Technologies, a U.S.-Israeli startup, has developed an alkaline fuel cell technology that can power small portable electronics like MP3 players, and doesn't involve potentially hazardous elements, the company says. For more on this, and other alternative fuel cells, read "Up Next: Eco-Friendly Batteries" in our February-issue "Battery Boosters" feature.

Alternative energy products tend to be slow to gain adoption, however. Look how long it took hybrid automobiles to become viable, and they still come at a premium. As a result, most experts agree that the lithium ion battery will retain its position in the market for about the next ten years. Any company with a new alternative battery technology will be "competing with well-entrenched companies that make millions of batteries and have been doing it for years," Alan J. Gotcher, chief executive of Altair Nanotechnologies, an alternative energy developer, was quoted as saying.

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