This last week, we were once again reminded that lithium-ion batteries come with risks, as HP notified that it was proactively recalling defective batteries. This is one of the few times a PC manufacturer has acted before the media picked up the problem and kudos to HP for aggressively getting ahead of this. With HP, this represents around 1 percent of the laptops out there, which sounds like a reasonable risk, and sadly, many manufacturers conclude that this is a reasonable risk to take and not do a recall. But all it takes is one device to go up and take out a home, down a plane, or kill a child and the cost financially, to the brand, and to sales would be catastrophic.
The recall affects laptops that were sold 12/15 through 12/17, mostly through retail, and the batteries are built into the products (so if your battery is removable, it isn’t affected). The web site to check if your battery is on the recall list is here. The full list of the laptops and mobile workstations impacted by this recall can be found here. And you can download the battery validation test here; the test takes less than a minute to run.
It is easy to blow something like this off but, if there is chance you have one of these, you shouldn’t let me explain why.
Lithium-ion battery packs have energy densities that are about one-fourth that of dynamite. This means each laptop battery could do a significant amount of damage. Fortunately, they don’t release the energy in the same way; rather than exploding it all at once in microseconds, they tend to release the energy over seconds, when they fail. But this results in an extremely hot fire and as the cells overheat and fail, the smaller explosions can spread burning material feet from the now burning device. The fire is generally hot enough to melt metal like aluminum, making the fires particularly problematic on planes, and they will easily catch other flammable items on fire.
I personally became acquainted with this risk when a large lithium-ion battery pack for my electric failed, melted the screws out of the steel fire containment box it was in, and started to burn my house down. It did around $6K in damage because we were home and caught the smoke coming in from the garage but, by that time, the smoke density was so thick you couldn’t see the fire. I was fortunate to have several fire extinguishers within feet of the event or I’d have been homeless.
Once started, these fires are exceedingly hard to put out. In industrial installations, suppression often requires specialized foam. If you have a fire, a type “C” or “D” extinguisher is preferred, but water will work (and will also cool the battery pack). Smothering can work to knock out the fire, but largely with something non-flammable like sand (the fire will burn through most blankets). Always remember that with a fire extinguisher, you want to fire at the source of the fire, not the top, so aim the thing down at the material that is burning. Here is a video of putting out a laptop battery fire. The video showcases that, as the cells fail, the ability for the fire to jump impressively large distances rises, and that once the fire is out, you still need to cool the remaining cells, or it may catch fire again (you’ll see this demonstrated in the video). It is interesting to note that ice doesn’t work to cool the cells because it generally doesn’t contact them quickly enough. It is also recommended that you deal with the fire where it is and not move the burning material, as you could become severely injured and cause the fire to spread. The smoke put out is toxic, so you want to knock the fire down as quickly as possible.
Wrapping Up: The Battery Danger May Be More Widespread
What concerns me the most when problems like this are reported are the products that we don’t know about that may have this problem. Batteries are made by companies that specialize in them and most of the big problems, Samsung’s recent Note 7 problem being an exception, are due to how the battery was built. Given that, there is a strong likelihood that another manufacturer that hasn’t recalled has this same problem, and has decided the risk to your life is acceptable. I expect that won’t end well.
Rob Enderle is President and Principal Analyst of the Enderle Group, a forward-looking emerging technology advisory firm. With over 30 years’ experience in emerging technologies, he has provided regional and global companies with guidance in how to better target customer needs; create new business opportunities; anticipate technology changes; select vendors and products; and present their products in the best possible light. Rob covers the technology industry broadly. Before founding the Enderle Group, Rob was the Senior Research Fellow for Forrester Research and the Giga Information Group, and held senior positions at IBM and ROLM. Follow Rob on Twitter @enderle, on Facebook and on Google+