Business

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

I'm Madeleine Brand.

Coming up, swimming ponies, duck decoy emporiums, and a strawberry snow cone. Our summer series A Hundred Bucks of Gas comes to an end with a visit to Virginia's Chincoteague Island.

CHADWICK: First, laptop computers. Boon to personal productivity or domestic fire hazard? Apple Computer announced yesterday it's recalling nearly two million laptop batteries because they might overheat. Last week, Dell recalled 4 million batteries for its laptops because they might cause fires. Both companies use batteries manufactured by Sony.

There's only a handful of examples of batteries bursting into flames, but here is one. Last month an Arizona man, Thomas Foqueran, took his laptop with him on a trip to Lake Mead National Forest. Listeners, never do this. Mr. Foqueran was loading up his classic 1956 Ford F-250 pickup when he smelled smoke and saw flames coming out of the passenger side. Here's how he described what happened next.

Mr. THOMAS FOQUERAN: I ran over to the driver's door, popped it open. I was actually reaching for the laptop because it was the most expensive thing in there, but the flames are all coming out of the laptop. And already half the truck was engulfed in flames. And I looked at the glove box, remembered there was three boxes of ammunition in there and jumped real fast. And then the gas tank started blowing up and I watched flames 15-20 feet in the air for about five minutes.

CHADWICK: Tom Foqueran of Kingman, Arizona.

Here to help us understand how a battery can start a fire is Marshall Brain. He's a former professor at North Carolina State University and he's the founder of the Web site called HowStuffWorks.

Marshall, welcome to DAY TO DAY.

Mr. MARSHALL BRAIN (HowStuffWorks.com): Hey, how are you today?

CHADWICK: I'm all right. How about these batteries? These are lithium-ion batteries? They contain, well, things that are explosive?

Mr. BRAIN: An explosive liquid actually. You can think of something like ether, a fluid that's inside the battery that helps it to do what it does. But it can happen that a plastic separator inside the battery gets punctured. And if that happens, the battery can very quickly short circuit and that liquid can either leak out and make a big mess or it can catch fire, as you described with the F-250. And it is a remarkable amount of energy that's stored in the battery and it all is released very quickly.

CHADWICK: Are we asking too much of batteries and battery manufacturers? Is that part of the problem? We want them smaller, more powerful, and much longer lasting.

Mr. BRAIN: And lighter. So we have all these demands that are being placed on batteries. And lithium-ion batteries have a really good energy density, meaning that you can store a lot of power in a small package, but when you store a lot of power in a small package - like a firecracker is a lot of power in a small package too. So as you pack more power into a smaller space, it has the potential for things going wrong.

And lithium-ion batteries, because they contain this organic solvent that helps the battery do its thing, they have a natural desire to burn if they get hot enough. So probably what we wait for is a new battery technology that isn't quite so flammable and so easy to burst into flames.

CHADWICK: And as we sit here drumming our fingers, how long will we be drumming them in this wait for the new, better battery that won't burst into flame?

Mr. BRAIN: Well, Intel has invested in a company producing zinc matrix batteries that are supposed to start to appear in 2007. And they are a lot like the alkaline batteries that you use in a flashlight, which are safer.

CHADWICK: Is there any reason to be concerned about, say, an iPod or a cell phone or any of the other devices we carry around, all of them depending on little tiny batteries?

Mr. BRAIN: Well, the thing about a laptop is that it's draining the battery very quickly and it has a big battery in it. So if you compare just the size of a battery in a cell phone to the size of a battery in a laptop, it's much, much smaller, and we're putting far less of a demand on a cell phone battery than we are on a laptop battery.

So I mean, the potential's there but it's kind of a different world when you look at a cell phone or an iPod battery. It's just not as high a demand application.

CHADWICK: How batteries work. Marshall Brain is the founder of HowStuffWorks.com. Marshall, thank you for explaining to us.

Mr. BRAIN: Have a great day.

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