http://www.nytimes.com/2006/08/14/t...e3087156424c51&ei=5088&partner=rssnyt&emc=rss Dell Recalls Batteries Because of Fire Threat By DAMON DARLIN Dell is recalling 4.1 million notebook computer batteries because they could erupt in flames, the company said today. This will be the largest safety recall in the history of the consumer electronics industry, the Consumer Product Safety Commission said. Dell, the worlds largest PC maker, said the lithium-ion batteries were made by Sony and were installed in notebooks sold between April 2004 and July 18 of this year. The recall raises broader questions about lithium-ion batteries, which are used in a host of devices like cellphones, portable power tools, camcorders, digital cameras and MP3 players. The potential for such batteries to catch fire has been acknowledged for years and has prompted more limited recalls in the past. But a number of recent fires involving notebook computers, some aboard planes, have brought renewed scrutiny. Dell has reported to the safety agency that it documented six instances since December in which notebooks overheated or caught on fire. None of the incidents caused injuries or death. Dell said the problems were a result of a manufacturing defect in batteries made by Sony. The safety agency said the batteries were not unique to Dell, meaning that other companies using Sony batteries may also have to issue recalls. Sony has sold its batteries to most of the major computer makers. The recalled batteries were used in 2.7 million computers sold in the United States and 1.4 million sold overseas. The total is about 18 percent of Dells notebook production during the period in question. Depending on how many of the batteries are still in use, the cost of the recall could exceed $300 million. Dell refused to estimate the cost, but said the recall would not materially affect its profits. Sony, which affirmed today that its batteries were responsible, said it was financially supporting Dell in the recall. Dell said it would notify affected customers by mail and online, advising them to remove their current laptop batteries immediately and arranging to send replacements. The largest previous safety recall of a consumer electronics product, in October 2004, involved one million Kyocera cellphone batteries. Dell has been bedeviled by reports of burning laptops in recent months. In June, a Dell notebook burst into flames during a conference in a hotel in Osaka, Japan. In July, firefighters in Vernon Hills, Ill., were called to the office of Tetra Pak, the food processing and packaging company, to extinguish a notebook fire hot enough to burn the desk beneath it. That same month, a Dell notebook in the cab of a pickup parked alongside Lake Mead in Nevada caught fire, igniting ammunition in the glove box and then the gas tanks. The truck exploded. A few minutes later and wed have been coming up out of the canyon when the notebook blew up, said Thomas Forqueran, owner of the laptop and truck. Somebody is going to wind up getting killed. The battery problem is the latest setback for Dell, long a high-flier on Wall Street. Faced with stiffer competition that has forced price cuts, it has reported lower-than-expected sales and earnings over the last year, sending its stock down more than 40 percent. It is also spending $100 million to improve its customer service, which it found had alienated consumers. Dell executives hope the recall, while vast, will prevent further damage to its image. Were getting ahead of the issue, said Alex Gruzen, senior vice president and general manager of Dells products group. I dont want any further incidents to take place. Other computer makers that use Sony batteries were taking stock today of their possible exposure to similar problems. An Apple spokeswoman, Lynn Fox, said today, 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. A Hewlett-Packard spokesman said the companys notebooks would not be affected by the recall since its batteries are designed specifically for its products. Lithium-ion batteries pack more energy in a smaller space than other types of batteries and are the cheapest form of battery chemistry. So more powerful batteries are increasingly being used in more types of consumer products. What that means, said Richard Stern, associate director of fuel, electrical and recreational products at the product safety commission, is more batteries, more likelihood for quality control problems and for design problems and so wed expect more incidents and more recalls of these batteries. The federal safety agency has negotiated 10 recalls of lithium-ion batteries used in notebook computers since 2000 and another 12 battery recalls for other electronic products, including a Disney-brand childrens DVD player. Federal regulations require that lithium-ion batteries be clearly marked with warnings when they are shipped in bulk on airplanes, and various agencies are considering more stringent regulations following a fire that was detected as a United Parcel Service cargo plane began its descent into Philadelphia in February. Though a cause of that fire, which consumed and destroyed the plane after it landed, has not been determined, lithium-ion batteries are suspected. No one was hurt. A single battery also caught fire in the overhead luggage bin of a Lufthansa passenger jet about to depart from OHare International Airport in Chicago in May. A flight engineer tossed it to the tarmac, where the fire was extinguished. (Neither of the incidents resulted in injuries, nor are they said to involve Dell computers or Sony batteries.) The Federal Aviation Administration lists three other incidents involving smoking or flaming lithium-ion batteries on cargo and passenger planes since 2004. The portable battery industry has said there is not a broad problem with lithium-ion battery fires. But makers have known of the lithium-ion batterys ability to catch fire since its first commercialization in 1991. Indeed, in 1995, a Sony lithium-ion battery factory in Koriyama, Japan, was partly destroyed when a battery being tested for quality caught fire. The current recall also leaves many questioned unanswered on how Dell, as well as the product safety commission, deals with information about fire-damaged notebooks. Although Dell told the agency that only six incidents had occurred, a reporter viewed almost 100 photos of melted notebooks that were returned to the company from 2002 to 2004. The photos, from a Dell database, were supplied by a former Dell technician, Robert Day, who said such damage was more of a common thing than they are letting on. As many as several hundred a year were returned. Mr. Day said, I did see so many pallets of stuff coming in that they had to use my lab for overflow storage. Dell officials refused to say how many computers had been returned because of heat or fire damage, but said the company acted on the problem as soon as it realized there might be a pattern. Mr. Gruzen said that the publicity surrounding the Osaka notebook fire did not prompt Dell to look into the problem. It was already having conversations with Sony, he said. But the Osaka incident focused the companys attention on the possibility that the fires might be a more widespread problem than originally thought. Its not that six was the magic number; we just didnt have enough material, said David Lear, Dells director of environmental affairs and product safety. Given the number of computers that Dell sells, even several hundred incidents a year is statistically minuscule, about one in several hundred thousand computers. We are talking about triangulating on very sparse data, Mr. Gruzen said. A member of Mr. Lears staff, who happened to be in Japan at the time of the notebook fire, retrieved the remains. It was taken to a Los Angeles area lab of Exponent, a failure analysis firm, for examination. The unit worked when it was plugged in to the power cord, despite the fire, which told the investigators that the problem was not with any circuitry or microchips. An X-ray of the battery pack told them the fire was not caused by an overcharged battery because a safety device was still intact. Rather, Dell said the cause of the fire was a short circuit in one of the fuel cells. It was caused by microscopic metal particles that contaminated the electrolyte, a porous insulator. Dell thinks that the particles were released when the case of the cell was crimped near the end of Sonys manufacturing process. It was the same problem associated with the 22,000 notebooks that Dell recalled in December. Sony technicians, who took part in the examination at the Exponent lab, provided additional data on all its batteries, not just those sold to Dell, that suggested that a broader problem in the manufacturing process. As events trickled in, they seemed to reinforce a conclusion that these Sony cells had an issue, Mr. Gruzen said. They dont show a predictable pattern, which is why we wanted to get them out of the marketplace. Sony is the second largest maker of lithium-ion batteries for notebooks, after Sanyo. The new Dell batteries, which the company hopes to distribute over the next four weeks, will be made by Sony and other vendors. Dell said it was confident that Sony had solved the problem by changing part of its manufacturing methods. We are absolutely confident that when we replace the batteries that we are getting the at-risk batteries out consumers hands and that there will be no more incidents, Mr. Gruzen said.