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The downside of batteries using the new material is that they have less energy capacity than those typically used in laptops today. A123’s batteries, for instance, have been engineered for applications in which safety and quick bursts of power are more important, such as for power tools. This power comes partly from the nature of the material; however, making the electrodes thin also helps. So engineering batteries with thicker electrodes can increase capacity.

Although safer lithium-ion batteries could be adapted for mobile devices, a re-engineered battery would still have less runtime than users now expect in their laptops and cell phones. The lower capacity, however, can be offset, to some extent, especially in cell phones, by faster charging times made possible by the new chemistry, says A123 founder and VP of business development Ric Fulop. Although the battery would be exhausted faster, it could be recharged during a break in a meeting or at a layover in an airport. Fulop says their batteries also maintain capacity over more charge/discharge cycles, extending their useful life.

Currently, A123 is focused on power tool and hybrid vehicle markets, where high power is essential. But Valence, whose batteries run the Segway personal transport vehicle, has been talking to laptop manufacturers about adapting laptops to use their batteries, says vice president of marketing Dean Bogues. So far, however, computer makers haven’t taken the bait. “The hurdle they’ve had is, who’s going to be the first to give up energy capacity to go with a safer technology?”

With the recent headline news of massive recalls and continuing worries over the safety of more traditional lithium-ion batteries, though, some may begin to change their thinking.

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