Bleeding Edge

by Mike Masnick

Wanted: More Battery Power; Lower Likelihood Of Explosion

from the in-an-ideal-world dept

A few years ago, I was at a conference and ended up sitting next to a research scientist who had spent many years working on and studying battery technology. We had a fascinating discussion about why it seemed like everything else in technology kept improving, but minus a few incremental advancements here and there, battery technology had pretty much topped out. His answer was both simple and memorable. It was something to the effect of: "You must realize, every battery you carry is basically a bomb waiting to go off. You can pack in more power, but that only increases the likelihood of it going 'boom.'" That statement kept popping up in my mind over the last month or so as story after story after story appeared about exploding laptops. Now, hours after Lenovo and IBM added a bunch of Thinkpad batteries to the long list of recalled laptop batteries from Dell and Apple, Sony (makers of all of those batteries) has announced its own damn recall of batteries from a variety of laptop makers who all used its batteries. So, with that in mind, it's really no surprise to start seeing articles looking at the state of research on new types of batteries. However, like previous times we've checked in on this space, there really isn't that much to report. There are ways to get more power, but it comes at the expense of a higher likelihood of explosion. You can make batteries safer, but then you get less power. There may be an answer out there, with things like decreased power consumption or faster charges may represent temporary solutions, but it seems we're still waiting for a real breakthrough in battery technology.

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  1. identicon
    Tek'a, 29 Sep 2006 @ 2:24am


    or imps. lashed to tiny little chairs connected to tiny little clockwork gears spinning up little power plants in your laptop, pda or mp3 device. or the more high tech solution? minature atomic reactors (dont forget to add water to that cooling tank every hour) or some kind of tesla-style beamed power system. its disappointing. its getting late in the year 2006 and batteries are still lumps based around acids and metals reacting in strange and fantastic ways. plenty of people reading this right now watched shows in their childhood and young adulthood about how hydrogen fuel cells would be powering everything in just years. im not asking for a flying jetsons bubblecar, but can we see something? anything? sprocket power.. yeah.. thats the answer

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2. identicon
    AW, 29 Sep 2006 @ 2:57am

    While it's all fine and good that the batteries are being replaced, it's dangerous to continue using them...but my question is, where's the Sony list of the current recall batterys?

    Each pc company has their own list...and while Dell doesn't specifically say that my battery may be affected, I'd like to cross reference that with Sony.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3. identicon
    RJarke, 29 Sep 2006 @ 4:30am

    Breakthrough you've been waiting for.

    You wanted a breakthrough? There ya go.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4. identicon
    JC, 29 Sep 2006 @ 5:32am

    The problem with battery technology is that it's not electronics. It's chemistry. Chemistry doesn't get to follow moores law like electronics do. And while electronics are fairly new with much still to learn, batteries have been around for thousands of years (it's believed the ancient egyptians had them).

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5. identicon
    Jim, 29 Sep 2006 @ 6:03am

    Carbon Nano-fiber Capacitor

    I saw an article about carbon nano-fibers being used to create a high capacity capcitor. Aside from their low energy density, capacitors are better batteries then batteries.

    Maybe this is the solution we've all been hoping for?

    Either way, I very much agree with this article. I've said to my friends many times that they next great breakthough in human evolution needs to be cheap energy production.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6. identicon
    Sam, 29 Sep 2006 @ 6:13am

    Yeah I've been keeping up with this kind of thing for a while. Sadly the advances are being made by people who don't know anything about business and never patent their discoveries for fear of it being stolen...or are completely psycho and want 100% control over the production and all of the profits from their product, which means it'll be 30 years before they are able to produce commercially.

    So only people with business sense(which is few and far between with scientists) or working for big corporations(which are few and far between) are actually making their work known.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7. identicon
    Someone, 29 Sep 2006 @ 6:14am


    > batteries have been around for thousands of years (it's believed the
    > ancient egyptians had them).
    Believed isn't good enough for me, I'll stick with believing they were
    invented in the 1700s. :)

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8. identicon
    Anonymous of Course, 29 Sep 2006 @ 6:25am

    Re: Carbon Nano-fiber Capacitor

    No doubt that cheap energy would be a boon
    to mankind.

    But these batteries are not sources of energy
    they're a means of transporting and using
    energy generated elsewhere- and so is hydrogen.

    For greater energy storage and nearly unlimited cycles,
    capacitor storage systems using ceramic capacitors
    are looking really good right now. But there are some
    issues. They store evergy at high voltage while electronic
    circuits we love to use are increasing circuit density by
    using smaller gemoeteries using lower anre lower voltage.

    So you'll need conversion electronics in the package
    with the capacitor bank to drop the kilovolts down to
    a vew volts. The electronics will have to be efficient.
    A big capacitor chock full of delicious energy is a nasty
    thing if it is short circuited.

    Any sorce of stored energy that allows rapid expenditure
    of the energy is dangerous. Even a block of wood if
    ground to powder can explode under the proper conditions.

    Better quality controls, more stable chemistry, better
    safeguards built into the electronics would be nice.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9. identicon
    Are you not entertained??, 29 Sep 2006 @ 6:27am

    Broken promises....

    I agree with you Tek'a. Seems we were promised a hi-tech future which never arrived. We're no closer to the bubble car than when we were still watching the Jetsons. I'm reminded of this every morning while my rolling vehicle is stuck to the ground by gravity in single file with all the other George's who are trying to get to work so they can put in their three hour day at Spacely's Sprockets. The good news, so I hear, is Apple plans on powering their next generation nano-iPod with Hydrogen fuel cells. Those darn chemical batteries keep wearing out too quickly as I try to listen to my mp3's stuck in traffic!

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  10. identicon
    Fat Hack, 29 Sep 2006 @ 6:39am


    How's about no batteries (well, only small ones) and we produce the power ourselves.,,1882010,00.html

    Solves the obesity problem too

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11. identicon
    nunya_bidness, 29 Sep 2006 @ 6:59am

    Sony Marketing Strategy?

    I may be wrong, but, I do not recall any Sony notebooks on a recall list.

    ...puts tinfoil hat back on

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  12. identicon
    Dudebro, 29 Sep 2006 @ 7:38am

    Battery Life

    Why would battery manufacturers want to extend the life of their product?
    They basically have the whole world in their firm grasp. The only improvements on batteries are minor (I believe) to make the bottom profit margin greater.
    It's just like Edison's light bulb... we can manufacture a light bulb that stay lit constantly for 100 years +, but we don't. Why?
    To sell more lightbulbs of course.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  13. identicon
    Mike w/BSEE from Brown '79, 29 Sep 2006 @ 7:47am

    Re: Breakthrough you've been waiting for.

    Woo! Woo!

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  14. identicon
    John Gietzen, 29 Sep 2006 @ 7:53am

    Re: Battery Life

    Dudebro, quit being stupid.

    If there are two companies out there making batteries, it would be advantageous to both of them to hunt for longer-life solutions.

    Anything to under-cut the competition.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  15. identicon
    David k, 29 Sep 2006 @ 8:07am

    Re: Re: Carbon Nano-fiber Capacitor

    I have been tracking some new battery technology using Nano tech, looks very promising, see info below, work for laptop too

    Altair Nanotechnologies to Demonstrate Advances in NanoSafe Rechargeable Battery Program at Zero Emission Vehicle Symposium

    Advances in the manufacture of safe, fast-charging, long-lasting batteries used to power electric and hybrid electric vehicles will be addressed by Altair Nanotechnologies Inc. at the California Air Resources Board Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) Technology Symposium, held September 25-27, 2006 in Sacramento, California.

    On September 27, at 2:30 p.m., Evan House, Ph.D., Director of Altairnano's Advanced Materials & Power Systems business unit, will deliver a presentation on Altairnano's NanoSafe rechargeable nano-titanate battery program. In addition, Altairnano will demonstrate its NanoSafe battery technology throughout the Zero Emission Vehicles conference.

    A leader in advanced nanomaterials and alternative energy solutions, Altairnano has forged an innovative path in battery chemistry by replacing graphite (which can cause batteries to malfunction or explode under certain conditions) with its patented nano-titanate material which is safe and reliable.

    Altairnano's nano-titanate material can be charged and discharged significantly more often than conventional batteries because of the absence of particle fatigue that plagues graphite. Conventional lithium ion batteries can be charged about 750 times before they are no longer useful. In comparison, Altairnano NanoSafe battery cells have now achieved over 9,000 charge and discharge cycles at rates up to 40 times greater than are typical of common batteries, while retaining up to 85 percent charge capacity.

    "It's an honor to be invited to present at the California Air Resources Board Zero Emission Vehicle Symposium and we look forward to providing substantive details on the role Altair Nanotechnologies is playing in making safe, powerful, long life, reliable electric vehicles a mass-market reality," Altair Nanotechnologies, Inc. President and Chief Executive Officer Alan J. Gotcher, Ph.D said.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  16. identicon
    DBGG, 29 Sep 2006 @ 8:25am

    Next Gen Battery

    Check out Sion Power (
    Their useing a lithium and sulfur combination that has some real potential.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  17. identicon
    Lay Person, 29 Sep 2006 @ 8:35am



    The more power the bigger the explosion?

    What Kinda crap is that? Look, as a kid, I used to deliberately make bombs. I also know that if you put a hole, regardless of the type of material of the casing or the amount of explosive, the bomb won't explode but just fizzle like a bottle rocket. If built correctly there's not even a chance of fire.

    Maybe me and this battery guy should get together...he designs the battery, I design the housing.

    One caveat, the housings need to be made of metal or non flammable material.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  18. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 29 Sep 2006 @ 9:44am

    Batteries are up against physical limits. Chemistry allows a maximum energy density of a few kJ/moles - more than that and the bonds start breaking, often explosively. Batteries, flywheels, little springs; they all have this same limit.

    Energy can be stored in electric and magnetic fields - capaictors and inductois - but doing this produces pressures proportional to the energy density. You can't do much better than batteries this way without producing pressures high enough to shatter any possible material, because of the limited strength of chemical bonds.

    The only feasible way to do significantly better is to go nuclear. Use radioactive istopes as your power source and can achieve energy densities of several MJ/mole - a thousandfold improvement on chemistry.

    However, I suspect radioactive batteries would met considerable consumer resistance, even if they allowed laptops to run for five years without recharging.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  19. identicon
    No Thanks, 29 Sep 2006 @ 10:04am

    It's all about the capacitors baby

    Here's the real answer...
    Carbon nanotube capacitors:

    ok, really there will be a bunch of answers, but this one seems the most enviromentally friendly, AND STABLE replacement for chemical batteries.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  20. identicon
    Lay Person, 29 Sep 2006 @ 10:46am

    Re: #19

    Yeah but then with nuclear you not only burn down your house but the city as well.

    Then that's not even considering the fallout.

    Seriously, I remember reading somewhere where some manufacturer had a hydrogen cell about the size of a pen light. You fill it with butane and it converts hydrogen in the butane to electricity. They already have a working model.

    Here is an excerpt:

    "Motorola announced that it has demonstrated a prototype of a fuel cell powered by methane gas. The company said it could be used for any portable electronic device. It should provide power to a cellphone for a month between charges.

    The fuel cell is slightly bigger than a typical cellphone battery. It contains a chemical reactor that releases oxygen, heat, and electricity. The cell can power the device directly, but in Motorola's design it keeps another battery charged. This would keep the power supply constant, similar to a UPS for a computer.

    Motorola joins others such as Sony and NEC in the consumer electronics industry in the quest for better portable power sources. Methane power has multiple advantages. It is plentiful and cheap and can even be obtained from renewable resources. It is also easily compressed from a gas to a transportable liquid.

    The industry feels that the engineering concept is now proven and all that remains is to design and engineer the mass production capability that will be required. Production is two to four years away."

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  21. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 29 Sep 2006 @ 11:31am

    ... with nuclear you not only burn down your house but the city as well. - not possible, nuclear batteries don't contain minature nuclear reactors, merely radioactive isotopes like those that naturally occur in your body. However, this is just the kind of scaremongering that would slow the take-up of that solution.

    Hydrogen is not a significant improvement on current batteries. It may be environmentally cleaner, but you can only get a few hundred KJ/gram out of it, in a tradeoff between power and lifespan. Nuclear is a thousand times better.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  22. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 29 Sep 2006 @ 11:51am

    Re: Re: Battery Life

    John Gietzen, dont underestimate entirely what he said.

    Products have lifecycles, and I dont know how old you are, but there are tools and pumps and basic things my grandfather had, bought in the 20s & 30s, that work today just as well as they did then. You're insane if you think a single damn thing in my entire average american house will work 80-90 years from now.

    So yes, why sell extremely long-lasting products, especially if you can't offer something improved enough technologically relatively soon? If it doesn't break, that kills the first chance for a business cycle, and if technology is utterly stagnant like batteries have been of late and therefore a new hot model won't come out next year then that avenue too is closed.

    Therefore, the best thing is to cut costs to the bone, which of course results in 'cheap' quality products, which drives the next cycle.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  23. identicon
    AMP, 29 Sep 2006 @ 11:56am

    Re: Re: Battery Life

    John, it is not that stupid of a concept. Planed obsolescence is not that uncommon.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  24. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 31 Oct 2006 @ 3:05pm


    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

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