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RECHARGEABLE BATTERIES AND LAPTOP COMPUTERS

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                  RECHARGEABLE BATTERIES AND LAPTOP COMPUTERS 

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       No other topic seems to inspire more opinion and comment than 
       the proper care and handling of rechargeable laptop and notebook 
       computer batteries. Should you slow or fast charge them? What is 
       the true life of a rechargeable battery after which it must be 
       disposed? Do rechargeable batteries have a "memory" effect? Can 
       nickel-cadmium batteries explode when charging or discharging? 

       Although this tutorial may seem technical in places, try to read 
       ALL of it since battery power may be your only source of laptop 
       power on many occasions. 

       For many portable computers a variety of rechargeable battery 
       options exist today. But frequently it comes down to the old 
       standby: nickel-cadmium batteries. Ubiquitous in consumer 
       electronic items such as shavers, flashlights, toothbrushes and 
       radios, nickel-cadmiums or "nicads" are a reasonable balance of 
       power, cost and weight and are used by many computer 
       manufacturers as the portable power source of choice. Let's 
       scratch the surface on the topic since there is QUITE A BIT the 
       manufacturer doesn't tell you about nicads.... 
       
       Glance at the following chemical equation which is at the heart 
       of the nickel-cadmium cell reaction. Don't get overly anxious 
       because high school chemistry was not your favorite subject. 
       We'll take things slowly.... 
       
                           <-----
       Cd + 2 NiOOH + 2 KOH -----> Cd(OH) + 2NiO + 2 KOH 
                                        2 
        
       In this highly simplified reaction sequence, electricity is 
       generated when the reaction proceeds in the direction of the 
       right pointing arrow, the discharge cycle. If the reaction 
       proceeds in the left direction the cell is charging. 
       
       In simplest terms, a nicad cell (a battery is constructed of 
       several cells hooked together) has a positively charged plate of 
       nickelic hydroxide and a negative plate of metallic cadmium. The 
       liquid between the positive and negatives plates which 
       facilitates this chemical reaction is usually a dilute solution 
       of potassium hydroxide - similar to lye or the Draino (tm) 
       solution your pour down the sink to clean your plumbing. When 
       discharging and thus producing electricity, the nickelic 
       hydroxide is reduced to nickelous hydroxide as hydroxyl ions 
       from the potassium hydroxide electrolyte combine with the 
       cadmium metal of the negative plate of the cell to form cadmium 
       hydroxide. Cadmium is oxidized when this happens and electrons 
       are provided into the external circuit, such as your laptop 
       computer. 

       When charging, the process reverses and hydroxyl ions combine 
       with the nickel which accepts electrons from the external 
       charging circuit. Notice that the electrolyte, potassium 
       hydroxide is unchanged with two atoms or units produced on both 
       sides of the chemical equation whether charging or discharging. 
       This is why you do not need to add more water to a nicad battery 
       which operates as a sealed reaction container. It regenerates 
       its electrolyte in both the charge and discharge cycles. 
       
       All of this is an ideal nicad cell. The real world of computers 
       and rechargeable batteries is not quite that simple. The first 
       SERIOUS item to consider is that all nicad cells and batteries 
       generate gas during both the charging, and to a lesser extent, 
       discharging cycle. 
       
       During recharging, oxygen gas is generated at the positive 
       electrode while hydrogen gas is produced at the negative 
       electrode. In other types of rechargeable cells, a standard lead 
       acid car battery for example, these gasses are usually released 
       into the atmosphere. The nicad cell does not have this luxury 
       since it must operate cleanly and with minimum release of gasses 
       or liquids. To minimize hydrogen gas release, nicad cells 
       usually have an oversized negative electrode which tends to 
       reabsorb hydrogen gas. In addition oxygen is recycled by 
       combining with metallic cadmium to produce cadmium oxide. So 
       called "fast-charging" nicad cells prevent gas buildup and 
       dissipate some of the heat generated during the quick charge 
       cycle by further enlarging the electrodes. Heat and gas buildup 
       is thus controlled and kept to tolerable limits in quick charge 
       nicads. 

       The first of several lessons which can be derived from this 
       technical discussion is that the buildup of hydrogen and oxygen 
       gas during the charging cycle is normally dissipated unless HIGH 
       recharging rates are attempted or unusually high temperatures 
       are produced. If the nicad cell is charged at abnormally high 
       rates the oxygen gas cannot dissipate and will EXPLOSIVELY 
       rupture the cell. 
       
       A safety system of sorts exists within the design structure of 
       most nicad cells via a pressure venting system - a plastic 
       diaphragm membrane at the top of the cell and small external 
       hole or "exhaust vent." In theory the system safely vents excess 
       pressure and then reseals. In practice the resealing is never 
       complete and the cell may continue to ooze caustic electrolyte 
       or worse the vent may not open soon enough and the cell may 
       simply explode. The vent is really designed for SEVERE charging 
       or discharging rates. In normal use it should NEVER activate; if 
       it does, the battery should be discarded. In cases of massive 
       overcharge or discharge the safety vent is usually too little 
       too late and a dangerous battery explosion takes place anyway. 
       
       During rapid discharge - short circuiting the nicad cell or 
       battery with a piece of wire, for example - gas buildup and heat 
       can be generated and a violent explosion can occur. Another 
       reason why nicads can explosively burst when short circuited and 
       forced to discharge quickly is that they have relatively low 
       "internal resistance" which allows them to dump their electrical 
       capacity quickly and with explosive force. 
       
       Common zinc carbon batteries have a much higher internal 
       resistance and when shorted may produce serious burns to your 
       fingers from melting wire but usually will not explode due to 
       sudden gas buildup. On the point of sudden nicad discharge by 
       short circuit you might be tempted to say that it would be highly 
       unlikely with a portable computer battery. Not so. Tales are 
       told of laptop computer batteries which have exploded when a 
       careless owner shoved several fully charged nicad batteries in a 
       travel case with a set of spare keys. If the keys accidentally 
       contact both the positive and negative poles of the nicad 
       simultaneously, a violent explosion reaction can occur!   
       
       Clearly nicads have some unusual features to be respected and 
       understood. Be careful with charged nicads and treat them as the 
       small "hand grenades" which they can become. Heat, sudden short 
       circuits and high rates of charging are the problem in this 
       area. 
       
       The correct operating temperature for discharging and recharging 
       nicads is from 65F to 85F, according to most manufacturers. High 
       and low ranges of from +32F to 115F are possible as upper and 
       lower limits if nicads MUST be used in extreme environments 
       although discharge and recharge efficiency may be adversely 
       affected - it may require more power to fully charge the battery, 
       charge may not be held for as long on the shelf after charging 
       and finally discharge may not produce a full three or four hour 
       computing session at these severe temperature ranges.

       Electrically, individual nicad cells - the units which are 
       hooked together to produce the final battery - have a charged 
       voltage of 1.25 volts. Nominally this drops to 1.2 volts under 
       actual discharge use or "load" in the electrical device. 
       Individual cells are strung together in "series" with the 
       positive terminal of one cell touching the negative terminal of 
       the next cell in sequence to raise the voltage to that suitable 
       for the electrical device. Thus two cells hooked in "series" as 
       a battery produce 2 X 1.2 volts = 2.4 volts. Likewise, three 
       cells connected as a battery produce 3.6 volts. By the way, 
       ordinary flashlight batteries of the carbon zinc type have a 
       nominal voltage of 1.5 volts compared to the 1.2 volts of the 
       nicad cell.

       Nicad batteries have an unusual and highly characteristic 
       discharge behavior which is best described as "a stable 
       discharge plateau then sudden voltage drop." Essentially a fully 
       charged nicad battery provides constant voltage and current 
       until near its exhaustion at which point the voltage SUDDENLY 
       DROPS and the cell is, for practical purposes, completely 
       discharged. 
       
       Compare this to standard carbon zinc and alkaline batteries 
       which gradually drop in voltage and amperage through the 
       discharge cycle of the battery. In use nicads tend to be stable, 
       then die suddenly at the end while conventional non-rechargeable 
       batteries slowly decay in voltage as their power is consumed. 
       One conclusion you might draw from this is that when your 
       portable computer beeps that the nicad battery voltage is 
       nearing exhaustion you literally have only moments of use left! 
       The good news is that nicads produce dependable power through 
       their discharge cycle which is highly desirable with digital 
       data and computer memory devices. 

       The "memory effect" of nicads is perhaps the most discussed and 
       misunderstood phenomenon associated with nicad cells and 
       batteries. An undesirable and somewhat unique characteristic of 
       nicad batteries that they can develop a "memory" which can 
       decrease either the capacity or voltage of the battery. 
       
       The first type of memory problem in nicads - voltage memory - is 
       caused by sustained charging over many days or months. This 
       memory effect can be accelerated by high ambient temperature 
       extreme duration of charge and high rate of charge. In effect 
       the battery is charged for such a long period of time or at such 
       a high rate or high temperature that the efficiency of the 
       chemical reaction is impaired and proper terminal voltage 
       readings are not achieved. 
       
       In the second, more common "memory capacity" problem, the nicad 
       loses the capability to deliver its full power capacity. One 
       cause of this peculiar memory problem is the FREQUENT PARTIAL 
       DISCHARGE of the battery - use for perhaps 30 minutes - and then 
       full recharge again. In effect the nicad battery "learns" that 
       only part of its capacity is used and over several cycles of 
       "partial depletion and then full recharge" that less then full 
       capacity is needed. It will then be unable to deliver a full 
       two or three hour standard discharge in normal use. Fortunately 
       memory effects are usually temporary and can be reversed.
       
       The chemical basis for these two memory effects is not fully
       understood, but may have to do with obscure oxidation reactions 
       which temporarily coat the internal electrodes of the battery 
       with thin layers of complex non-reactive chemical compounds 
       which can be removed by more fully "exercising" a nicad through a 
       complete charge/discharge cycle. 

       It is claimed by many manufacturers that this odd memory effect 
       of nicads has been largely eliminated due to modern 
       manufacturing methods. However to some degree this may in fact 
       be a result of newer charging systems and the relatively 
       complete discharge of nicad power by modern laptops. In effect 
       the batteries are charged and discharged in a more appropriate 
       manner by most laptop users so memory effects "appear" to be no 
       longer a problem.

       Both memory problems - voltage memory and capacity memory - are 
       usually temporary and can be corrected by discharging the 
       battery to or very near its exhaustion point (optimum drawdown 
       voltage is about 1.0 to .9 volts for a standard 1.2 volt nicad) 
       and then recharging it to full capacity. Repeat this discharge-
       recharge cycle from 2 to five times and frequently the nicad 
       will lose its memory for the "partial capacity" and again 
       provide a full 3 or 4 hours of use in most laptops. Actually, 
       frequent FULL discharge and recharge prolongs the life of a 
       nicad. The more you use them the longer they last! 

       Most folks who want to completely discharge laptop nicads simply 
       leave the computer on until it runs down. A much faster method is 
       to use the following batch file which continuously reads the 
       directory of a disk and writes the contents to a disk file. 
       The continuous disk access drains nicad power much faster. If 
       you are not familiar with batch files, read the batch file 
       tutorial elsewhere in this program. Here's the three line batch 
       file. To stop the batch file at any time press the control and 
       break keys simultaneously. When finished you may wish to erase 
       both the batch file and the small file named "test" which it 
       creates.

       :start
       dir>test
       goto start

       As an aside, the newer nickel-hydride batteries used in some 
       laptop and notebook computers do not seem to suffer from memory 
       effects. But these batteries are more expensive and not in 
       common use by most laptop manufacturers.

       Nicads do eventually fail. And for various reasons. Temporary or 
       partial failure due to memory effects was discussed in the 
       previous paragraphs. 
       
       Permanent failure - usually between 3 to 5 years into the life 
       of a typical nicad can happen due to the growth of 
       characteristic "whiskers" of conducting chemical compounds which 
       effectively bridge the internal gap between the positive and 
       negative electrodes inside the battery. Effectively these small 
       contamination deposits gradually short circuit the battery 
       internally which leads to inability to charge or discharge. Some 
       clever electronic hobbyists build high current "surge" power 
       supplies which can burn open these internal deposits and reopen 
       the gap between positive and negative electrodes. A risky 
       practice at best - given the explosive reputation of nicads - but 
       "zapping" nicads in this manner has been documented as one way 
       to add life to an otherwise dying battery. A risky an usually 
       ill-advised attempt to salvage an otherwise dying battery.

       A different permanent failure can result from premature loss of the 
       liquid electrolyte from the battery. High temperature and/or 
       high charging rates are usually the cause here. Quick-charge 
       batteries frequently fail due to this problem if their charging 
       circuits are not properly designed. If the top edge of the cell 
       which contains the fail safe pressure release valve has a 
       buildup of white corrosion powder this is probably the residue 
       ot the expelled electrolyte and the cell may be on its way to 
       failure and should be replaced. Note that you can only see this 
       corrosion buildup on the top of the SINGLE nicad cells which are 
       usually encased within a surrounding plastic battery housing. 
       The plastic housing may show little problem externally. 
       Generally, however, the average computer user should not attempt 
       to open the protective plastic case of the battery to examine 
       each cell. If the manufacturer seals several individual nicad 
       cells in a plastic battery container it is for GOOD reason and 
       your own personal safety. As a rule quick charge nicads do not 
       last as long a regular nicads due to heat build up during the 
       charging cycle.

       So how long will a nicad battery last before complete failure 
       occurs? Manufacturers estimate LOW figures between 500 and 1,000 
       full charge and discharge cycles or about 3 to 5 five years, as 
       noted above. Some nicads have been known to approach 5,000 to 
       10,000 charge and discharge cycles before permanent failure. 
       Excessive quick charging, heat buildup, infrequent use and lack 
       of full charge all contribute to shortened nicad lifespan. 

       Charging and discharging mathematics... 

       Charging nicads is generally done automatically by a charging 
       circuit. Two practical pieces of advice: 1) if the battery 
       becomes VERY hot something could be wrong 2) if the manufacturer 
       tells you that the battery will be fully charged after a certain 
       length of time although it can be left charging longer you will 
       probably do the nicad a favor by removing it after full charge 
       is reached. Some clever nicad users simply attach an inexpensive 
       electrical timer - similar to those used to turn lights on and 
       off in the evening - directly to the nicad charger to prevent 
       overcharging. 
       
       Generally nicads have a proper charging rate which depends on 
       each manufacturers recommendation. For standard nicads which are 
       NOT quick charge types the proper slow or "trickle" charge rate 
       is determined by dividing the ampere hour capacity of the 
       battery by 10. For example if a nicad has a total capacity of 1 
       ampere hour, dividing this by ten (1/10) produces a correct 
       trickle charging rate of .1 amps or 100 milliamps. Quick-charge 
       nicads can accept a charge rapidly and the suggested charging 
       rate is determined by dividing the ampere hour capacity of the 
       battery by 3 rather than by 10. These figures represent the 
       trickle charge rate which theoretically means the nicad "could" 
       be safely left charging indefinitely without harm. 

       Higher efficiency chargers are designed not to simply trickle 
       charge nicads but start a discharged battery at a HIGH rate of 
       charge and then taper the charging current back quickly to the 
       safer "trickle" charge rate once full charge is reached. Usually 
       for regular nicads this "initial surge charge" can be as high as 
       the ampere hour capacity divided by 3. For quick charge nicads 
       this "initial surge charge" can be as high as the ampere hour 
       capacity divided by 1. Obviously these are very high charge 
       rates and are provided to discharged batteries and then 
       quickly discontinued once full charge is approached. Clearly a 
       charging circuit of this sophistication is expensive and may 
       even contain its own microprocessor to sense the discharge level 
       of the nicad and calculate the optimum charge rate, time and 
       trickle charge transition. Since we have previously discussed 
       the adverse affect of heat on nicads it is essential to note 
       that NICADS SHOULD BE CHARGED IN A COOL OR ROOM TEMPERATURE 
       location since they normally generate heat when charged. If you 
       minimize heat buildup - especially during the charging cycle - 
       you will prolong the useful life of your nicad battery. 
       
       Discharging a nicad - especially if you are trying to remove a 
       "memory" problem such as that discussed earlier does NOT mean 
       discharging a cell to zero volts. Usually the correct discharge 
       voltage is about 1.0 volts. This may seem odd when you consider 
       that the fully charged cell has a 1.2 volt reading, but in fact 
       at 1.0 volts a typical nicad cell has released about 90% to 95% 
       of its energy - another eccentric, but predictable behavior of 
       nicads given the rapid "voltage drop off" as they near the end 
       of their three or four hour life in a laptop computer. 
       
       Shelf life. While carbon zinc and alkaline batteries can hold 
       their charge for years, nicads lose their charge relatively 
       quickly. Although it varies, one quick rule of thumb is that a 
       typical fully charged nicad will lose roughly 25% to 35% of full 
       charge in one month. Then another 25% to 35% of THE CHARGE 
       REMAINING in the next month. And so on and so on. Thus if you 
       have several nicad batteries you want to charge for a trip you 
       will be taking in a month, it is probably better to charge ALL 
       OF THEM the final week just before the trip rather than the 
       month before. For want of a better phrase, this might be called 
       "shelf discharge" and is normal with all nicads and has to do 
       with slight electrical leakage and chemical compound decay 
       internally within a charged nicad which sits on a shelf. Cooling 
       or refrigerating the nicad (but NOT freezing) will slow this 
       "shelf discharge" since you are cooling and slowing the 
       breakdown reaction. In fact ALL batteries will last longer when 
       refrigerated until they are used. Simply store them in 
       individual sealed plastic bags (to minimize moisture 
       condensation) and place them in the refrigerator. 

       And so we conclude with a little summary....
       
       1) Do exactly what the manufacturer suggests for both 
       discharging and recharging a nicad.
       
       2) Keep temperatures - especially during charging - cool or at 
       normal room temperature.
       
       3) Never short circuit a nicad intentionally or accidentally.
       
       4) Try cycling a nicad through several COMPLETE discharge and 
       recharge cycles if it "appears" to be faulty an incapable of 
       operating your equipment for a normal three or four hour 
       operating period. 
       
       5) Remove nicads from charging circuits or discontinue charging 
       when full charge has been reached. 
       
       6) Watch for white flaky corrosion deposits on the upper edge of 
       the cell near the pressure vent this can mean impending cell 
       failure and electrolyte loss.
       
       7) Dispose of permanently defective nicads properly - contact 
       the manufacturer for instructions since cadmium is a dangerous 
       toxic metal and has been banned from many dump sites. Try 
       calling your local city hall and ask who can answer a question 
       about cadmium metal waste disposal. 
       
       8) When the nicad battery power begins to drop near the end of a 
       discharge cycle it will drop VERY QUICKLY due to the rapid 
       characteristic dropoff of nicads. Prepare for laptop shutdown 
       quickly. 
       
       9) Cycle your nicads through a FULL DEEP discharge and FULL 
       COMPLETE recharge frequently - they will last LONGER before you 
       must dispose of them and deliver MORE power when used. 
       
       10) Infrequently used nicads should be charged and discharged at 
       least once or twice every two or three months to prolong their 
       usable lifetime before permanent failure.
       
       11) If your nicads are stated by the manufacturer to be quick 
       charge type, you can probably prolong their life by slow or 
       trickle charging them (if your charger provides that option) 
       since you will minimize heat and gas buildup within the cell. 
       Just because they can be quick charged does not mean they MUST 
       be quick charged. Nicads last longer and deliver more power when 
       not driven to extremes of temperature or overcharging. 
       
       Tutorial finished. Be sure to order your FOUR BONUS DISKS which 
       expand this software package with vital tools, updates and 
       additional tutorial material for laptop users! Send $20.00 to 
       Seattle Scientific Photography, Department LAP, PO Box 1506, 
       Mercer Island, WA 98040. Bonus disks shipped promptly! Some 
       portions of this software package use sections from the larger 
       PC-Learn tutorial system which you will also receive with your 
       order. Modifications, custom program versions, site and LAN 
       licenses of this package for business or corporate use are 
       possible, contact the author. This software is shareware - an 
       honor system which means TRY BEFORE YOU BUY. Press escape key to 
       return to menu.