I’m the trouble starter, notebook instigator.
I’m the Dell addicted, Sony illustrated.
I’m a fire-starter, notebook fire-starter.
You’re the fire-starter, notebook fire-starter.

With apologies to The Prodigy for ruining a perfectly good lyric, but it does serve to highlight the problem de jour: that of flaming laptops. If you thought it was safe to participate in a spot of mobile computing now that Dell had recalled all their machines thought to be at risk from overheating Sony lithium-ion battery packs, think again or you may never have children chaps.

The Yahoo Mission Campus was evacuated after a Dell went up in smoke there yesterday. The irony of the owner not having the relevant recall information, considering the building he was in, does not escape me. It didn’t escape Yahoo observers that corporate policy at Yahoo HQ is apparently ‘HP all the way’ so the thing shouldn’t even have been there in the first place either.

And talking of escape, it appears that a number of people were rather lucky to do just that over the weekend after another laptop went up in smoke just as someone was boarding a flight at LAX. Lucky because the chap managed to run screaming back down the jetway with his hot portable, leading to the departure lounge being evacuated. This was no Dell lappy either, it has been confirmed that it was a Lenovo ThinkPad T43, although Lenovo refuse to confirm if it was a Sony lithium-Ion battery at fault.

Odd that, seeing as that model ships with precisely such a power source. Aha, says the spokesperson, but some users change their batteries for other makes after they have bought the laptop. Let’s not forget that Apple also recalled a number of iBook G4 and PowerBook G4s in August. Quite a big number actually, 1.8 million to be precise. Again, because of those Sony batteries. The fact that Lenovo made a big point of distancing themselves from those recalls, with talk of different charging voltages and even different battery housing case designs, might just have something to do with their reticence to admit that a Sony battery was at fault now.

So what is the problem? Well officially, it’s because of the potential to short circuit if any miniscule shards of metal, one assumes left over from manufacturing, create holes in the battery cells themselves. I cannot help but think the problem lies deeper than that, with the disparity between the technological development of the battery as a power source and the rate of growth of the devices they power. Laptops are now well and truly the equivalent of lugging a desktop around on your lap, and the power requirement immense. Yet how much of that power is actually used, by the average laptop user on the road? Quite, a mere fraction. Most write the odd email, do a bit of word processing and maybe input some data into a spreadsheet. And that’s it. Everywhere else, for everything else, it is plugged into the mains.

Something needs to be done; there can be no doubt about that.

Fortunately, I am not alone in thinking this, people that matter are as well. People such as the manufacturers of notebooks themselves, which is handy. Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Polycom and Lenovo were all present at a meeting of the OEM Critical Components Committee this month, where new Lithium-Ion battery standards were the topic of the day. There is some confusion as to whether Apple attended, as they were not on the official list of attendees, although this could simply be a clerical error. It was no error that Sony wasn’t there, they were not invited. Here’s hoping this does not mean that the initiative is doomed to fail before it even begins. We will know come the second half of next year when the standards should have been agreed.

About the Author

A freelance technology journalist for 30 years, I have been a Contributing Editor at PC Pro (one of the best selling computer magazines in the UK) for most of them. As well as currently contributing to Forbes.com, The Times and Sunday Times via Raconteur Special Reports, SC Magazine UK, Digital Health, IT Pro and Infosecurity Magazine, I am also something of a prolific author. My last book, Being Virtual: Who You Really are Online, which was published in 2008 as part of the Science Museum TechKnow Series by John Wiley & Sons. I am also the only three times winner (2006, 2008, 2010) of the BT Information Security Journalist of the Year title, and was humbled to be presented with the ‘Enigma Award’ for a ‘lifetime contribution to information security journalism’ in 2011 despite my life being far from over...

Looks like a Korean outfit, ETRI, might have one answer to the overheating battery problem: an electronic switch that uses a Mott Metal-Insulator Transistor in order to prevent laptop batteries from 'swelling' and consequently exploding following an overheating episode. The Critical Temperature Switch can, apparently, act as both a transistor and an insulator, although at this stage detail is scant so please don't ask me how it works!

I suspect a bit of Googling in the days to come will supply all the answers...