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Battery recalls spur safety testing in Japan

Posted: 16 Nov 2006 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:Li-ion battery? recall? Sony? Dell? Apple?

Japan's pride in the prowess of its electronics industry took a hit recently as images of burning laptops blazed across the Web. On the heels of the recalls of Sony-manufactured lithium batteries used in some Dell and Apple models, two of Japan's PC giantsToshiba and Matsushita Electrichave issued recalls of their own.

The problems have mobilized Japan's government and its battery industry, which holds 70 percent of the global market for Li-ion batteries. The government is drafting test standards with which manufacturers will be expected to comply. And one company is working on a nonflammable battery that it expects to release early next year.

Japan's Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) took immediate action after the Dell and Apple recall announcements in August. METI asked both U.S. companies to supply detailed reports of the problems leading to the recalls, and it asked the Japan Electronics and Information Technology Industries Association and the Battery Association of Japan to investigate the incidents. At the end of August, the associations reported to the ministry that no additional battery failures had been uncovered.

METI then formed a working group within the Commerce and Information Policy Bureau to hammer out safety measures for lithium batteries. The working group held its first meeting in late September and plans to submit recommendations by March. It will focus on establishing a test process that all lithium batteries headed for the notebook market will have to clear.

The problem to date, a METI official said, has been the lack of standardized safety measures in the industry. "Each manufacturer sets its own criteria," the official said. "We need to discuss this."

Too broad a brush
Some manufacturers took umbrage at METI's aggressive response, saying it painted the battery industry with too broad a brush. "It's a question whether all Japanese Li-ion battery manufacturers have problems," said Toru Ishida, president of Matsushita Battery Industrial Co. Ltd. In general, however, the industry appears to support the government inquiry.

In Japan's private sector, Pionics Co. Ltd is working on a lithium battery that it says will not easily burn. Tapping $2.1 million in funding received in 2003 from Intel Capital, Pionics completed its production line in September. Its lithium polymer battery, dubbed PelLicle, is slated to hit the market in March.

Pionics claims the battery will pack about 1.5 times the electric capacity of its conventional counterparts and will do so more safely. "Current Li-ion batteries flare up if they short out," said president and CEO Tsutomu Sada. "That's because the organic electrolyte used in current batteries burns in an instant. But in our new battery, even if a nail is pounded through it, nothing happens."

'The ice system'
In place of organic materials, PelLicle uses an ionic liquid-polymer composite electrolyte that the company calls "the ice system." Pionics says the battery contains no flammable materials and that its separators are coated with non-flammable films. Thus configured, the battery pack does not require a protection circuit, according to the company.

As a stopgap safety measure until the battery becomes available, the organic electrolytes used in current Li-ion batteries can be replaced with the ice electrolyte, said Sada. But the switch compromises battery performance, which drops 10 percent to 20 percent.

The cost for swapping out an organic electrolyte in favor of the ice system will be lower than typical licensing costs, Sada said, citing the reasoning that "if the technology is widely used, new business will develop between us and user companies. We can produce the battery for them or provide consultation."

Pionics' new production line has a capacity of two million cells per month.

- Yoshiko Hara
EE Times

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