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The Truth About Fiery Laptops: Lithium ion batteries
are potential incendiaries, but they’re all we’ve got

BusinessWeek, Sep. 11, 2006
By Stephen H. Wildstrom

The recall of nearly 6 million Dell and Apple laptop batteries brought to light what has long been the tech industry’s dirty little secret: The batteries that power our laptops, wireless phones, iPods, and cameras are potential incendiaries. The risk of your laptop bursting into flames is low, and it is much lower for other devices. But it is real, and it’s not going away.

The lithium ion batteries that came into widespread use in the late 1990s enabled a revolution in portable electronics by allowing a lot of power to be packed into a very small space. But if you overcharge them, or there is an electrical fault such as a short circuit, they can generate an unfortunate combination of oxygen, fuel, and heat inside the cells — in other words, an explosive fire waiting to happen.

Lithium ion batteries and their cousins, the lithium polymer batteries used mainly in phones and other handhelds, rely on protective electronics to prevent chemical mayhem. Of the millions of batteries Sony made for Dell and Apple, these circuits appear to have failed in several dozen, sparking fires that can be contained but not extinguished until the oxygen and fuel are spent. Physical damage to the battery can cause the same results. Laptops are far more prone to catch fire than other products because their batteries are much larger and operate in a much hotter environment, heat being an important contributing factor.

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