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Industry unites to prevent battery recall repeat

Posted: 01 Dec 2006 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:Li-ion batteries? lithium ion battery? Sony? battery recall? Rick Merritt?

Five industry groups on two continents are quietly hammering out new procedures and standards to prevent a recurrence of the recall of Li-ion batteries that has affected major laptop makers since it began in August.

In the United States, OEM companies are coordinating four efforts to attack the problem. In Japan, a government-led plan is addressing the issue with local vendors, who make as many as 70 percent of the world's batteries.

Whether U.S. OEM and Japanese vendor efforts mesh or clash remains to be seen. Both sides agree that the problems stem from the contamination of Li-ion cells by metal particles.

"Sometimes adversity brings the greatest cooperation," said John Grosso, chairman of the IPC OEM Critical Components Committee, which was formed in mid-September. Grosso is also a director of supplier engineering and quality at Dell Inc.

"The question of liability in the supply base is getting major visibility, so the level of cooperation among battery suppliers is high," Grosso said.

In an interview, Grosso said he would suggest that the group define a specification for the so-called delta overcharge current test. The test compares an initial cell with one that has had a full heat-stress test. If the difference in the overcharge current level between the new and tested cell is too great, the lot is pulled for further testing.

The delta OCV test aims to identify cells that have too many contaminants in the electrolyte. Such contaminants were believed to be the cause of problems with Sony batteries used in the Apple and Dell notebooks that were recalled in August.

"Right now, this test is handled differently by each vendor. You can spend a day just understanding how a vendor does its delta OCV test," said Grosso.

The IPC committee has preliminary numbers for the levels of contamination it will consider to be acceptable, but wants to review them with experts before it makes them public.

The IPC standard could be a tool that auditors at United Laboratories (UL) might use as they try to step up tests at battery makers.

One source who has met with UL representatives said the group plans to beef up its so-called 1642 standard on Li-ion batteries before the end of the year. "It's a really aggressive schedule," the source said.

Revised spec
The UL may step up the frequency of its audits from quarterly to monthly checks, and it plans to add training for its test crew.

Separately, David Ling, a regulatory policy manager at Hewlett-Packard Co., has drafted a proposal for revising the IEEE 1625 specification, which addresses cell, pack and system issues for notebook-class Li-ion batteries. Apple, Dell, HP, Intel and Sony have volunteered to work on the revision.

Details of the revisions have yet to be worked out. However, the goal is to make a number of optional provisions mandatory. The group also plans to incorporate requirements set down in a more recent IEEE1725 standard for cellphone batteries.

"What that does is give OEMs something they can write into their specifications and have vendors test against," said the OEM battery specialist.

Ling also chairs the regulatory policy committee of the Information Technology Industry Council (ITIC), which is helping to coordinate the various efforts through the ITIC's existing battery working group. The working group "started as a means to share information, but now they want to take action" about the recall problems, Ling said.

Even before the August recalls started, the ITIC's battery group had been culling tough battery requirements from individual notebook makers to create a single shared requirements list. It intends to share those requirements with UL as an input to its process for updating the 1642 standard.

"Rather than have six different test protocols from individual notebook makers, the battery makers would just have one," said Jim Seippel, a Dell manager who chairs the ITIC battery group.

Meanwhile in Japan, the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry formed a working group within its Commerce and Information Policy Bureau to write by March a standard for testing notebook batteries. All battery makers are expected to comply with the effort.

In the United States, sources at notebook makers seem to be relying primarily on their own initiatives to deal with the problem.

Intel Corp., for example, has refined a mechanism that gives notebook makers a new way to predict battery cell failures before they occur. The so-called Intel Adaptive Mobile Power System uses a patent-pending algorithm to detect impending cell failures, and then turns the battery off, said Don Nguyen, a battery architect at Intel.

"There are people planning to use it because once a cell is in runaway mode, there is nothing you can do," said Nguyen.

The actual battery failures behind all the fuss have been amazingly few, said Dell's Seippel. Dell experienced only 11 failures out of 4.1 million notebooks recalled. Because each notebook battery packs seven cells, that amounts to 11 failures in more than 30 million products, he said.

"That's a very, very low failure rate, but still one we feel is unacceptable," Seippel said.

- Rick Merritt
EE Times

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