August 15, 2006 2:33 PM PDT

Can anything tame the battery flames?

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Ross Dueber, CEO of Zinc Matrix Power, has two words for you: Think zinc.

The Camarillo, Calif.-based start-up is one of a number of companies that has been toiling away at a problem that's no longer obscure due to Dell's massive laptop battery recall: Lithium ion batteries can, under the right conditions, explode into flames.

"They (lithium ion batteries) contain a highly flammable liquid in a pressurized vessel. They have a fairly powerful oxidizer. You've got to have strict quality control in manufacturing," he said. "It's the only rechargeable battery technology has uses a flammable liquid."

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By contrast, Zinc Matrix has come up with a silver zinc-based battery that can't explode, Dueber said. The materials inside the battery--mostly zinc, zinc oxide and water--aren't flammable. Notebooks running on these batteries, which will go into low-volume production in early 2007, can last eight to 10 hours, he said, longer than lithium.

Lithium ion batteries, which came out in 1990, are the surly child prodigy of portable electronics. These batteries can hold far more energy than conventional rechargeable batteries and generally weigh less than traditional rechargeables. Notebook makers and cell phone manufacturers have used these properties to create fairly light devices that can run for several hours on a single battery charge.

Unfortunately, a short circuit inside a lithium ion battery can lead to what's known in the industry as a "runaway thermal reaction." The reaction can cause the battery case to melt and spew hot liquids, or explode due to pressure and heat. Injuries have been reported around the globe.

To make matters worse, manufacturers have continued to increase the energy density--or the amount of energy the battery can hold--of lithium ion batteries by thinning out separators (which keep the electrodes apart) and changing other components. These changes lead to longer run times--something consumers are demanding--but also raise the potential that something can go wrong.

"The root cause is more and more energy required in a limited volume. You aggravate the safety issues," said Rick Cooper, vice president of business development at PolyFuel, which makes membranes for direct methanol fuel cells.

Marketing safety, reliability
For the past several years, venture capital firms have been putting money into start-ups promoting technologies that replace, or supplement lithium ion batteries. To date, most of the interest has been around trying to improve battery life and run time in portable electronics.

Cooper and others, however, have said that safety is now one of the primary concerns among hardware makers. In turn, safety could help spur adoption.

Many of these alternative technologies have also faced delays or not been adopted when expected. Most of the time, it's because early versions of the alternative technologies have not worked as well as lithium ion. Historically, for example, zinc batteries didn't recharge well.

Nonetheless, momentum, say these companies, is growing. MTI Micro Fuel Cells is producing fuel cell prototypes for Samsung. Zinc Matrix, meanwhile, has received $32 million in venture funding since 1999. It is currently building a pilot manufacturing facility and has lined up Tyco Electronics to help it move to mass manufacturing.

CONTINUED: A more favorable market…
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9 comments

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Sorry about the triple post..it was not confirming.
Yet they posted.
Posted by pjdw (33 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Don't feel bad
It has happened to me a few times.
Posted by Andrew J Glina (1673 comments )
Link Flag
I take this story was written w/o taking into account other news...
Methanol, I highly doubt that it would be allowed on airplanes.
Especially given that people won't even let you bring bottled water
and a newspaper on a flight to certain destinations. So how would
they get a flammable liquid able to be allowed in flights? It will get
to the point where the only thing you can bring on a flight, is the
clothes on your back, shoes on your feet and your skibbies.
Posted by MidniteRaider (94 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Agreed, Do not do electronic work on planes
All jobs require thinking. Do the note taking
on planes and leave the computerized part for later. Better yet....REST so you can think better on the job when you get back to it. In
college I found that I learned much better if I did not study every day. When I began taking
Friday's off....the work grew easier. We humans must recharge the same as laptops.
Posted by pjdw (33 comments )
Link Flag
PDA's are next!
PDA's are next just like laptops if they explode or are Ion, They are no longer on planes!
Posted by kyle172 (65 comments )
Reply Link Flag
PDA battery
I bought a replacement PDA battery for my PDA about a month ago from <a class="jive-link-external" href="http://www.laptopsforless.com/pdahandheldbattery" target="_newWindow">http://www.laptopsforless.com/pdahandheldbattery</a> and it works great. Is there any reason to think that a replacement PDA battery would be any worse than the manufacturers replacement?
Posted by GreenApple123 (7 comments )
Link Flag
It could be Dell, not the battery
I bought a Dell computer in 2001. Before a month was up the hard drive failed. After a couple months the DVD drive went with a loud scream of my cd exploding while being read in the drive.
It took 10 days for Next Business Day repair to happen and it was only that fast because I got tired of waiting for service contract employees to come and decided to remove and install the "new" (package said refurbished) DVD drive myself.
I had so much down time with a Dell and tempermental conflicts with my programs I finally bought a different brand of desktop.
If a Dell desk top is so poorly built I must surp=mise the laptops follow suite. Especially since my Compac laptop has two lithium batteries that have never been a problem. After all, I am
bright enough to follow instructions and flip its little back legs up so air can circulater around it to cool it off.
Don't be so fast to point the finger at Sony and it's batteries. After all, the laptop must have a proper cooling mechanism.
Posted by pjdw (33 comments )
Reply Link Flag
It could be Dell, not the battery
I bought a Dell computer in 2001. Before a month was up the hard drive failed. After a couple months the DVD drive went with a loud scream of my cd exploding while being read in the drive.
It took 10 days for Next Business Day repair to happen and it was only that fast because I got tired of waiting for service contract employees to come and decided to remove and install the "new" (package said refurbished) DVD drive myself.
I had so much down time with a Dell and tempermental conflicts with my programs I finally bought a different brand of desktop.
If a Dell desk top is so poorly built I must surp=mise the laptops follow suite. Especially since my Compac laptop has two lithium batteries that have never been a problem. After all, I am
bright enough to follow instructions and flip its little back legs up so air can circulater around it to cool it off.
Don't be so fast to point the finger at Sony and it's batteries. After all, the laptop must have a proper cooling mechanism.
Posted by pjdw (33 comments )
Reply Link Flag
It Could Be the Dell, Not the Battery
I bought a Dell computer in 2001. Before a month was up the hard drive failed. After a couple months the DVD drive went with a loud scream of my cd exploding while being read in the drive.
It took 10 days for Next Business Day repair to happen and it was only that fast because I got tired of waiting for service contract employees to come and decided to remove and install the "new" (package said refurbished) DVD drive myself.
I had so much down time with a Dell and tempermental conflicts with my programs I finally bought a different brand of desktop.
If a Dell desk top is so poorly built I must surp=mise the laptops follow suite. Especially since my Compac laptop has two lithium batteries that have never been a problem. After all, I am
bright enough to follow instructions and flip its little back legs up so air can circulater around it to cool it off.
Don't be so fast to point the finger at Sony and it's batteries. After all, the laptop must have a proper cooling mechanism.
Posted by pjdw (33 comments )
Reply Link Flag
 

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