Panasonic's lithium ion battery cells
Panasonic speaks on its latest developments in laptop batteries

Following the Sony laptop battery fiasco of 2006, intense interest has been paid to the safety of the portable energy source. The IEEE is in the process of updating its standards for laptop batteries, and some companies are developing their own improved cells. One such company is Matsushita, best known for its Panasonic brand in North America, who makes lithium-ion batteries for notebooks.

DailyTech spoke with Michael Buckner, Senior Manager for Panasonic's Energy Solutions Lab, about the electronic company’s role and future in batteries. While Sony was the goat in last year’s laptop battery, Matsushita had a very small Japan-only recall of its own. Despite the fact that Sony was the one stumbling in its lithium ion products, the entire consumer public began to worry about the safety of all laptop batteries.

“When any supplier has a problem, it creates concern for the technology itself. The challenge that we must meet is to reassure the public that Lithium-ion batteries are safe,” said Buckner. “Safety has always been the number one priority at Panasonic. The incidents last year just reconfirmed that we need to maintain safety first in our designs.”

Last November, the IEEE announced that it would revise its laptop battery standard to improve safety guidelines. The IEEE has named Panasonic as one of the interested participants in the formation of a new standard, but Panasonic did not comment on its specific involvement with the IEEE. Buckner did have this to say about the upcoming standard: “While nothing has been approved yet, we feel it best that any proposals set safety levels but not mandate the methods for manufacturing the cells, which could increase the costs significantly.”

Panasonic has already made developments in improving laptop battery safety, independent of the IEEE. Parent company Matsushita announced in December that it has established a mass-production system for a 2.9 Ah lithium-ion battery that incorporates heat resistance layer technologies to ensure safety. We asked Buckner if these new batteries were now available to North American consumers. “Yes, the 2.9Ah lithium-ion batteries are our second generation batteries and are shipping in the latest generation of Panasonic Toughbooks,” he replied. “Several other manufacturers are also designing notebooks for these cells and you should see these coming to the market this year.”

In addition to improving safety, Matsushita has also developed lithium ion batteries that boast 20 to 40 percent greater capacity while retaining the heat resistance safety layer. The prototype battery uses metal alloys for its negative diode instead of the graphite carbon that is typically used. Thanks to the alloy material, the maximum capacity for a standard 18650 size battery increases from 2.9 Ah to 3.6 Ah. Energy density/volume is also increased by 40 percent over Panasonic's current batteries, to 740 Wh/L.

“This is our third generation battery with a capacity of 3.6Ah,” said Buckner, who continued to explain what this means to consumers. “It would allow for a 10 hour battery pack that is the same size as a first generation 6 hour battery pack. By optimizing the composition and developing new process methods, Panasonic has overcome the technical difficulties in using an alloy for an electrode.”

These high-tech batteries aren’t on the market yet, but we were told that the third generation technology would be commercialized in the “near future.”

Looking forward, electronics companies are exploring different options on where next to take mobile power. Sony Electronics President Stan Glasgow has gone on record to predict that notebook makers will likely soon incorporate lithium polymer battery technology instead of the currently used lithium ion.

Panasonic, however, feels that there is still much life left in lithium ion technology. “Li-ion cells have the highest capacity of any present battery technology,” said Buckner, adding that Panasonic is focused on improving lithium ion batteries to meet the demand for longer running portable devices while adapting new safety technologies in the interest of consumer safety.

"Google fired a shot heard 'round the world, and now a second American company has answered the call to defend the rights of the Chinese people." -- Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.)

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