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Dell Recall 4.1 Million Lithium Ion Batteries

The industry have been aware of the lethal potential since 1991 but recent events pressure them to think again.


DALLAS (AP) -- Dell announced Monday they will recall 4.1 million lithium ion notebook computer batteries because they can overheat and catch fire. The batteries are manufactured by Sony who also supply Apple with the batteries for their MacBook and MacBook Pro notebook computers.

Dell negotiated the conditions of the recall with the US federal Consumer Products Safety Commission. This will be the largest ever electronics recall in the history of the agency.

The affected batteries were shipped between 1 April 2004 and 18 July 2006.

'In rare cases a shorted circuit can cause the battery to overheat, causing a risk of smoke and/or fire', said Dell spokesperson Ira Williams. 'It happens in rare cases, but we opted to take this broad action immediately.'

Dell have launched a website that describes the affected models. The new website also tells customers how to get their free replacement batteries.

Sony spokesperson Rick Clancy said the companies have been studying the issues for over a month after receiving a half dozen reports about smoking and burning notebooks in the US.

Ten Years?

These lithium ion batteries have been in use for about ten years. They're used in cell phones and digital music players as well. Tiny metallic particles can sometimes short circuit the battery cells.

'But it begins with the battery and we acknowledge that', Clancy said. 'That's why we're supporting Dell in the recall.'

Sony will help Dell pay for the recall but neither company have disclosed how they will share the cost. A larger potential cost for Dell would be dampened future sales of their notebooks.

Hewlett-Packard do not use Sony batteries and are not affected by the recall. Apple reputedly use the same batteries as Dell.

The Dell recall is the third of its kind in the past five years. In December 2005 they recalled 22,000 batteries with similar symptoms and 284,000 batteries were recalled four years before that.

339 Incidents

Scott Wolfson of the Consumer Product Safety Commission advises computer users with the affected batteries to run their computers on a power cord.

The safety agency know of 339 incidents of overheating lithium ion batteries over the past three years. The incidents range from smoke and minor skin burns to actual injuries and property damage. Most of the incidents occurred around the home, but transportation safety officials have become increasingly concerned about exploding notebook computer batteries causing catastrophic damage to commercial airliners.

Dell's battery recall is another blow to the industry leader who last year absorbed $338 million due to faulty components. The drop in quality caused company stock to plummet to half value in the past year. After news of the recall programme, it dropped an additional $0.24 in after hours trading.

The timing is also less than propitious for Sony who last month revealed the first rise in Q1 profits in four years.

Sony, the world's second biggest lithium ion battery maker after Sanyo, saw their stock drop to ¥5,210 in Tokyo after the announcement.

The recall programme is estimated to cost over $200 million.

Affected Models

The following Dell notebooks, sold between 1 April 2004 and 18 July 2006, are affected.

  • Inspiron: 500M, 510M, 600M, 700M, 710M, 6000, 6400, 8500, 8600, 9100, 9200, 9300, 9400, E1505, E1705
  • Latitude: D410, D500, D505, D510, D520, D600, D610, D620, D800, D810
  • Precision: M20, M60, M70, M90
  • XPS: XPS, XPS Gen2, XPS M170, XPS M1710

These batteries were also sold separately and may have been provided in response to service calls. The words 'DELL' and 'Made in Japan' or 'Made in China' or 'Battery cell made in Japan, Assembled in China' are printed on the back of the batteries.

Recall URL

Dell's emergency site is now online with full and easy to follow instructions.

http://dellbatteryprogram.com/

You can also call the Dell Battery Replacement Hotline [sic] on 1-866-342-0011.

Other Recalls

Apple recalled 128,000 iBook and PowerBook batteries in 2005. Hewlett-Packard recalled 135,000 batteries.

The Inquirer!

Paul Hales of the Inquirer claims it was pressure by his organisation which led to the companies finally taking action.

'While the potential dangers of lithium ion batteries have long been known, it seems it took the Inquirer's publication of those shocking photos of Dell's famously exploding laptop for something to be done about the issue', wrote Hales.

'As we noted before, the possible dangers of laptop computers bursting into flames on an aircraft in the middle of the Atlantic need to be taken into account, as facts hitherto fore buried in bureaucracy begin to demonstrate.'

[Actually it concerns aircraft anywhere, above any ocean. Ed.]

Relaying reports from the Washington Post, Hales notes in addition that the US Federal Aviation Administration logged 60 battery related incidents in airplanes and airports since 1991, and that in the past two years six incidents have occurred on aircraft, including five fires and an overheating torch that 'had to be handled with oven mitts'.

Lufthansa 435

Then there's the case of Lufthansa Flight 435 ready to embark for Munich of out Chicago's O'Hare International Airport when smoke began floating out from the luggage bin above seat 2A.

A flight engineer found a smoking case and tossed it to the tarmac where it erupted in flames; investigators discovered a charred notebook computer and a six-pack of melted lithium ion batteries. The owner of the batteries admitted they were non-standard and purchased on eBay.

Makers of lithium ion batteries have been aware of their ability to catch fire since 1991; in 1995 a Sony battery factory in Koriyama Japan was partly destroyed by a battery that caught fire.

Non-rechargeable lithium ion batteries have been banned by the FAA since 2004.

Hales reports that up to but not including the Dell recall a total of over two million rechargeable batteries for cellphones, notebook computers, portable DVD players, digital cameras, et al have been recalled in the past three years, including 300,700 notebook computer batteries recalled since May 2005.

Buy an Apple?

In the wake of the recall, visitors to the Sydney Morning Herald are advising people to get an Apple computer instead.

'We are currently investigating whether batteries that have been supplied to Apple for our current and previous notebook lines meet our high standards for battery safety and performance', said Lynn Fox, a spokesperson for the Cupertino company.

[Of course if Apple against all odds should unexpectedly find any issues with their current line of acclaimed Chinese notebook computers, it certainly would be the first anyone's heard of it. After all, Apple are the 'BMW' of the computer industry and their customers are used to paying premium prices to get that 'BMW' quality.]

Lithium Ion?

Physical chemist Gilbert Lewis pioneered lithium batteries in 1912 and the first non-rechargeable cells were created in the early 1970s. The rechargeable battery required a further 20 years of development before it was considered safe enough.

The first commercial lithium ion battery was introduced by Sony in 1991.

The lithium ion battery has a nominal voltage of 3.6 volts and a typical charging voltage of 4.2 volts. A typical chemical reaction is as follows.

Li½CoO2 + Li½C6 ↔ C6 + LiCoO2

The battery's anode is made from carbon, its cathode from metal oxide, and its electrolyte from lithium salt in an organic solvent.

Since the lithium metal which might be produced under irregular charging conditions is very reactive and might cause explosion, these cells usually have built-in protective electronics and/or fuses to prevent polarity reversal, overvoltage, and overheating.

The lithium ion battery is not as durable as the nickel cadmium or nickel metal hydride battery. Further, it can be extremely dangerous if mistreated.

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