Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Laptop batteries continue to raise potential safety hookers


USA Today, in a story Tuesday March 6 2007 by Peter Eisler and Alan Levin, titled "Batteries Can Pose Fire Risk to Planes; laptops, phones lead to new rules", link here here, continues the concerns raised last summer with the recall of lithium laptop computer batteries, hundred of thousands of them, by several vendors, because of the rare occurrences of spontaneous fires.

The Transportation Security Agency is reportedly looking at its carry on policy again. Currently, laptop computers and cell phones are permitted either carry on or checked. See the link for current information. The USA Today story advises against placing non-rechargenable lithium batteries in checked luggage, and the TSA already probibits shipping them on passenger jets.

It's understandable that even a remote risk is unacceptable in commercial aviation. One problem is that this spills over into other areas. Could hotels or apartment property owners be concerned about hazards posed by electronic devices owned by guests or tenants? My own Dell laptop Inspiron computer battery was not on the recall list, but it does get hot with long use. I have made it a safety precaution at home to disconnect it when the laptop is not in use or when I am away from home from an extended period. I usually work on the laptop with the power cord plugged in to a Belkin uninterruptible power supply. This sounds a little "safer." I routinely pat check all outlets, surge protectors and power supplies for unreasonable or unexpected amounts of heat detectable to touch.

The chemistry of lithium batteries is interesting (as well as the theory behind it), and makes a good sidebar discussion in a high school advanced placement chemistry textbook.

The battery industry attributes much of the problem with cheaper counterfeit batteries not made to UL standard, but we know that many of the batteries recalled in the summer of 2006 were from well established companies. It is important for people to be able to travel with laptops and work with them safely. This is an established part of efficient business. Even school systems and teachers use them widely, and classrooms often have electronics left on or in situations where there could be marginal fire hazards after the school day is over and everyone is gone; I have noticed this as a substitute teacher.

No one was concerned about this a few years ago, although problems had occurred as early as 1999. Perhaps laptop and battery manufactures should offer lower-powered but "safer" batteries for travel as optional accessories while the battery industry works on this important manufacturing safety issue.

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