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PC makers, including Dell, are getting to work on notebook fire prevention.

Executives from companies, including Apple Computer, Dell, Hewlett-Packard and Lenovo Group, all members of the electronic products standard group IPC’s OEM Critical Components Committee, plan to meet in September 2006 to begin work on a manufacturing standard for lithium-ion battery cells they expect will improve safety of the technology, used widely in notebook PCs and other electronics.

The committee aims to take on concerns about notebook battery safety and the volatilities of lithium-ion cells, which have come into the spotlight in recent weeks, following several reports of notebook PC fires and the massive battery pack recalls by Dell and Apple Computer.

Those recalls now cover almost 6 million packs, worldwide, between Dell’s Aug. 14 recall of 4.1 million battery packs and now Apple’s Aug. 24 recall of 1.8 million battery packs.

The Critical Component Committee’s work, which began in early 2006 but picked up steam about two months ago, aims to help make lithium-ion battery packs safer by creating universal specifications for lithium-ion battery cell manufacturing.

The group, chaired by John Grosso, a director in Dell’s Worldwide Procurement Group in Austin, Texas, will meet Sept. 13 to begin discussions on the standard.

Grosso hopes to move swiftly enough to release the standard during the second quarter of 2007, he said in an interview with eWEEK.

Click here to read more about what Dell’s doing to help businesses replace their batteries.

“My immediate view of our deliverable does not tie into longer battery life. It ties into if you’re a customer…do you feel safe buying the thing? I look at that, today, as that’s our charter—making the consumer feel that they’re not getting a product that they have to worry about,” Grosso said.

“If you look at lithium-ion batteries, they’re in cell phones, power tools, [and] cars. They’re going everywhere.”

The committee will not specify notebook battery pack design, however, or propose any other standards that dictate the way in which the packs are used in notebooks.

Grosso said he believed those issues should be left up to PC manufacturers. It will focus on the battery cells, which are made by companies like Sanyo and Sony and then assembled into packs by one of a number of vendors.

However, the committee aims to look deeply into the battery cell’s construction and also the testing methodologies that manufacturers use.

“What we’re looking to do here—IPC is not an enforcement body—we’re going to look at design guidelines, manufacturing requirements, testing and reliability,” Grosso said.

“The intention is that once we get a standard in place that raises the bar—it brings all the cell manufacturers to a common performance level—we as the users of those cells start specifying specs…then our companies become the enforcement agencies.”

Next Page: Components, contaminants.

The committee will eye the battery cell designs as well as the purity of materials manufacturers use in internal cell components such as separators, electrolyte formulations, coating mechanisms used on cathode and anodes.

It will also address ways of measuring contaminants inside the cells and those contaminants’ effects on cells as their dimensions change, he said.

Contaminants introduced into the Sony-manufactured battery cells were the root cause of the recalls by both Dell and Apple, Sony has confirmed.

Lithium-ion cells might look like a supermarket can of soup or New England-style brown bread on the outside. But inside they look sort of like a jelly roll.

Two strips of coated metal foil are separated by an insulating layer and wound up in a coil. The coil is placed in a metal can, filled with an electrolyte solution, and sealed.

“Cells can potentially fail if they get very hot due to external heating or excessive current flow, if they are overcharged, or if a short-circuit occurs between layers of the coil.

“This last problem was what led to the recall: metal particles, contamination from the manufacturing process, are in very rare cases causing a short-circuit in the cell that leads to a fire,” Forrest Norrod, Dell’s vice president of engineering, wrote in an Aug. 22 posting in Dell’s Direct2Dell blog.

For Dell, “The root cause of the recent incidents was a metal particle of just the right—or maybe wrong—size in the wrong part of the cell,” Norrod wrote in the post.

“In rare cases, the contamination can cause a short-circuit which creates a lot of heat and breaks down cell materials, which in turn releases more heat and oxygen. You then have combustible materials in the cell plus oxygen and heat—all the ingredients needed for a fire. The whole process occurs quickly, and once it starts, the battery pack safeguards can’t stop it. The key to safety is to have a clean manufacturing process and a cell design that prevents particles from getting into the critical area.”

Thus the committee will also focus on testing, including taking a look at ways to discover such events by accelerating or exacerbating problems, in an effort to learn more about prevention, Grosso said.

But the committee, whose members also include Cisco, Lucent, IBM and Motorola, wasn’t always as intently focused on batteries. Its first standard, the April 2006 IPC 9591, governs fans used in electronics equipment.

When looking ahead at a meeting in February 2006, the 2-year-old committee—it’s part of the IPC, an industry body founded in 1957 that bills itself as connecting different electronics industries through manufacturing standards—targeted power conversion or power supplies, components design, and also batteries are areas it could address.

“We had batteries third on the list,” Grosso said.

“We said, ‘Batteries are important. Let’s get them on the list.’ But we didn’t put together another team” to address them, he said.

“I think we all knew that there was an opportunity in batteries. But it just didn’t raise the level of concern that it should of. Two months ago… I put out a call to our steering team partners and said, ‘Look, we’ve got to accelerate this…when can we put our meeting together?’”

Given that he works in Dell’s procurement operation—Grosso oversees Dell’s purchasing of a wide range of components, including processors and chip sets—a separate operation from the PC maker’s Mobility Products Group, the executive said he was unaware of any plans for a recall of Dell battery packs.

Next Page: Shifting focus.

However, the appearance of several online reports of notebooks catching fire motivated Grosso to call for a greater focus on batteries by the committee, he said.

Over the summer, numerous reports of notebook fires cropped up, including—Dell’s now-famous Osaka incident in which one of its machines caught fire at a business.

Not all of the incidents involved Dell machines, he said. More recently, a Sony notebook was reported to have caught fire.

Grosso said he told members, “I think we need to accelerate what we were going to do” with batteries. Apple, HP and Lenovo, in particular, responded with support, he said.

To be sure, even though Dell recalled 4.1 million units, that figure represented only about 15 percent of Dell’s notebook shipments. But, given the recent issues with batteries, some analysts believe safety standards are due.

“I’m actually a little surprised that there isn’t one already” for batteries, said Richard Shim, an analyst with IDC in San Mateo, Calif.

“A safe battery standard would make a lot of sense for the industry. It would be a lot more convenient for consumers” as well.

But, despite the public interest battery safety and its best efforts to create standards, the Critical Components Committee can’t force battery suppliers or any other PC component maker to comply with its specifications.

Instead, the Critical Components Committee aims to encourage manufacturers to band together and require components they use meet committee standards.

Despite the omnipresence of PC-industry technology standards that define the way items such as network cables should connect, few standards for the way the those components are manufactured exist, Grosso said.

Components makers often decline to share information, due to the competitive nature of their business.

For their parts, lithium-ion cell makers are considered to be particularly insular.

Although the basic principles of battery-making are well known, the actual creation of lithium-ion cells has long been considered a black art.

Cell manufacturers are said to guard their secret formulations closely. Thus getting the manufacturers to adhere to a standard that would seemingly level the playing field might seem like a stretch.

Next Page: Secondary stages.

However, Grosso said that the committee would involve the manufacturers in the secondary stages of its standard-setting work, giving them the ability to respond to proposed specifications during a review period.

Generally “We bring [manufacturers] on board after we’ve got the first or second draft through the user community,” he said. “We believe they have a lot of impact. But we don’t want to get tied down to what [they say] can or can’t be accomplished. We’re trying to change the industry from [a perspective of] this is what’s been done for the last X years, ‘Because that’s the way it is.’”

Meanwhile, manufacturers such as Dell and HP can enforce the committee’s standards themselves by requiring that battery makers meet them as a condition of doing business.

Given their ability to be involved, battery makers should be aware of the committee’s specifications well in advance.

“We’ve found that standards diminish complexity while raising the bar on safety and reliability,” Grosso said.

“The cost of liability for a problem is much higher than sharing on certain safety aspects that [battery cell makers] may consider their IP” or intellectual property.

PC makers banding together would certainly influence suppliers to react, Shim said.

However, given that the committee has not yet met, there is some uncertainty regarding what will happen.

“I think there are a lot of unknowns here, yet,” Grosso said. “It is new territory, and that’s part of the excitement of getting into our first meeting and seeing how do we align, where are our first greatest opportunities to strike some successes.”

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