It has all the elements of a good thriller: a stolen secret formula, bungled corporate espionage, untraceable goods, and lone wolves saving the little guy from the misdeeds of multinational corporations. In this case, a mistake in the stolen formulation of the electrolyte in a capacitor has wrecked hundreds of PCs and may wreck still more in what is an industry-wide problem.

Aluminum electrolytic capacitors with a low equivalent series resistance (ESR) are high-capacitance components that generally serve to smooth out the power supply to chips. Throughout 2002, they have been breaking open and failing in certain desktop PCs. One independent PC repairer estimates that he has fixed 1200 boards so far. Motherboard and PC makers contacted by IEEE Spectrum have stopped using the faulty parts, but because the parts can fail over a period of many months, more such problems are expected.

The origins of the motherboard malaise seem a lesson in how not to commit corporate espionage. According to well-placed sources in Taiwan, the formula for an electrolyte, a key component of certain types of capacitors, was stolen and then sold by a wayward scientist or his associates to a firm in Taiwan that manufactures electrolytes. That firm then sold material based on the stolen formula to capacitor makers in Taiwan and possibly elsewhere. Unfortunately, the formula was incomplete, lacking additives that keep the capacitor from rupturing during operations.

Major Taiwanese capacitor makers have denied using the faulty electrolyte, and indeed tracing the origins of the bad components has been difficult. The majority are labeled with the trademark of an unknown firm; some have no label at all. Still, Taiwanese component firms have been hard hit by the scandal as former customers concerned about the quality of their components have cut off relations. Taiwanese firms claim they are the victims of a smear campaign by Japanese competitors.