Matsushita, TI Offer Notebook Battery Improvements

Updated: The two companies are each offering to improve the safety and performance of notebook batteries, following problems with Sony and other lithium battery cells.

Matsushita and Texas Instruments are looking to improve the safety and performance of lithium-ion battery cells that are commonly used in notebooks and have come under increasing scrutiny after several high-profile battery fires.

On Dec. 18, Matsushita, the Japan-based electronic giant which is best known for its Panasonic line, announced that it would begin to mass produce lithium-ion batteries that the company claims are better insulated and will not spark a fire if the cells become overheated.

On the same day, Dallas-based Texas Instruments announced that it would start making new battery management integrated circuits in its chipsets that will offer improved performance and protect lithium-based battery packs.

The two announcements come at a time when Sony is still looking to recover from a series of voluntary recalls of notebooks that used the companys battery packs and called into question the safety of the companys manufacturing practices

The problems began when Dell announced on Aug. 14 that it would voluntary recall more than four million notebooks that used Sonys battery packs. A few weeks after the initial recall by Dell and Sony, Apple, Lenovo and several other notebook makers announced that they would also recall certain lines of notebooks that used the malfunctioning battery packs.

Sony would later announce that it would replace any defective batteries for free.

/zimages/5/28571.gifClick here to read more about lithium-ion technology and how manufactures will continue to use it to make notebook batteries.

The battery cells themselves, which are usually arranged in groups of six inside a battery pack, were at the heart of the problem. Metal particles introduced during manufacturing could cause a short circuit inside one of the cells, which would then lead to a fire.

Despite the recall and concern about the safety of lithium batteries, experts agreed that there are few viable alternatives at this point.

In its announcement, Matsushita said it would start mass producing lithium-ion batteries that use metal oxide instead of polyolefin as an insulator. This will form a more effective heat-resistant layer within the battery cell. Even if there was a short circuit within the battery, the insulating layer will not cause the battery to overheat, according company officials.

In April, Matsushita announced it could produce about 100,000 units a month. Now, the company will start producing about five million units a month, according to Reuters.

In the meantime, Texas Instruments is introducing new integrated circuits that will help monitor battery capacity, impedance, cell balance, open circuit voltage and other critical parameters of a number of battery packs.

The chipsets that use these circuits are immediately available, the company said.

A Nov. 29 report by IDC found that while notebook recalls had not affected the laptop market, the study did indicate that the recalls cause some concern.

About 15 percent of consumers and corporate buyers reported that they would change their buying habits, which could have an impact on market share.

Richard Shim, an analyst at IDC, said the announcements by Texas Instruments and Matsushita are ways for the two companies to cater to OEMs as well as a change to differentiate their products in a homogenized market.

"This is a way to champion another variable in the battery market, which is safety," Shim said. "The end question is, does this benefit the consumer, and do they care? A lot depends on who you ask."

Referring back to the IDC study, Shim said 85 percent of buyers were not affected by the battery pack recalls. However, these latest announcements were aimed at those 15 percent of buyers who indicated that they would change their purchasing habits. A small fluctuation would be enough for OEMs to either gain or lose market share.

In such a tight and competitive marketplace, OEMs and their suppliers "need to take advantage of what ever opportunity they can," Shim said. "Its not just a PR thing. This still has wide implications."

Editors Note: This story was updated to include comments from IDC analyst Richard Shim.

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