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The next notebook battery? Lithium polymer

Technology first discussed years ago might power your next laptop, replacing the fire-hazardous, but commonly used, lithium ion.

A battery technology that was touted nine years ago for notebooks may finally get its day in the sun.

Notebook makers will "likely" soon choose to incorporate lithium polymer batteries over the current commonly used type, lithium ion batteries,

Stan Glasgow Stan Glasgow

Lithium polymer batteries use lithium as an active ingredient. Lithium is a volatile material, but the lithium in these batteries isn't packed into cells as it is in lithium ion batteries. Instead, it is contained in a polymer gel. These gel batteries can't provide the same sort of energy density as lithium ion batteries, but that's now a plus.

Manufacturers, and in particular Sony, have pushed the energy density (or capacity) of lithium ion batteries. When an internal short occurs, it can set off a chain reaction and start a fire. Dell, Lenovo, Toshiba, Apple Computer and others, in conjunction with Sony, have offered to take back millions of lithium ion batteries shipped with particular notebooks in the past two years.

"There is not too much more power we want to cram into lithium ion," Glasgow said.

Historically, polymer batteries have not been able to provide the long battery life manufacturers and consumers demand. Mitsubishi put lithium polymer batteries in its ill-fated Pedion notebook in 1997. The notebook sported several design novelties--it was far thinner than contemporary designs and was the first notebook with a shiny metallic chassis--but it cost nearly $6,000 and had some mechanical problems.

Despite their struggles, industrial designers have always liked lithium polymer because gel packs can be squeezed into devices' empty spaces. Lithium polymer has also improved over time. Some manufacturers are using it in phones.

Several companies are responding to the hazards of lithium ion by coming out with nonlithium batteries. Zinc Matrix Power and PowerGenix, for example, are promoting zinc-based batteries for notebooks and other devices. Zinc Matrix says it will start shipping batteries in 2007. Glasgow asserted that that these battery technologies could take a little while to get to market.

"I don't think anything new is going to be available in the next 12 to 18 months," he said.

MTI Micro Fuel Cells and others will also try to popularize fuel cells, which harvest electricity for notebooks by passing methanol through a membrane.