Friday, September 01, 2006

Cringely was Right!

Robert X. Cringely (host of PBS’s NerdTV) wrote an interesting op-ed piece in today’s New York Times. In it he argues that when it comes to designing rechargable batteries, consumer safety takes a back seat to battery power. He explains how Sony (the manufacturer of the lithium-ion batteries that have recently been recalled) knew about the exploding potential, but charged ahead anyway. He shows how safety standard used by industry, the M.T.B.F. (mean time between failure) is a sham measurement that tells you nothing about the likelyhood that your battery will explode.

However, industry is not the lone, uncaring villian here. They are merely responding to market forces.

One might think that we'd be working on safer technologies, and we are, up to a
point. Safer lithium-ion batteries are available, but computer and mobile phone
manufacturers, now duking it out in a market based on talk time and battery
life, have decided that we don't really need them. And judging from the reckless
way we use these devices while driving cars, the manufacturers are probably
correct about our risk tolerance.

This, to me, is just another example of why the libertarian think tanks are wrong when they say that market forces will eventually lead to better safety.

After reading that, I saw this little article over at ScienceDaily. It talks all about a new advance in electrode technology for lithium-ion batteries. It reviews the basic science of how a li-ion battery works and then explains what the new technology does differently. It hypes how the new technology will lead to batteries that hold more charge and last longer.

And then at the very end, almost as an afterthought, it says:

There's an added bonus in that replacing a proportion of the cobalt used in the
traditional lithium-cobalt-oxide electrodes with manganese improves safety by
reducing the risk of overheating.

While a better performing battery that’s also safer is what we ultimately want, I find it sad that safety isn’t one of the top selling points. It looks like Cringely was right!

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