By John G. Spooner  |  Posted 2006-08-16 Print this article Print

If it was introduced into the right spot, a shard could work its way into a position to cause a short circuit. Short circuits can cause a cascading effect where excessive heat builds up and a cell eventually catches fire. It then ignites the adjacent cells inside a battery pack, producing effects such as those seen from a notebook that caught fire in Osaka, Japan, recently. That machine produced flames and smoke. "Why Dell thinks its the first to see the problem, is because it was first to adopt these cells from Sony," Kay said. "It thinks its competitors will start seeing these problems in greater frequency as these things get to be two years old and older."
A Dell spokesperson declined to comment on other manufacturers systems. Sonys Yang said that he couldnt be sure Dell was the first or only manufacturer to use the battery cell design.
However, both Dell—with its recall—and Sony, which has now made changes to its manufacturing processes, said they chose to err on the side of caution. Thus far, Dell says it has received only a handful of reports of "incidents" with its Sony-made battery cells, including six in the United States and a few more elsewhere in the world. One such incident involved the now-famous Osaka laptop. That machine caught fire at a business conference. An investigation that involved a post mortem of the laptop by Dell helped lead to the discovery of the manufacturing defect inside the battery cells, Dell officials said. "When compared to the hundreds of millions of battery packs and PCs that were shipped [in the time period of the recall], we believe the number of incidents to be very minor," Yang said. "Were taking this precaution to ensure there arent any other failures in the marketplace and also to make sure that were taking care of all of our customers." Wolfson urged anyone who has one of the affected Dell batteries to comply with the recall as soon as possible. "If you can tell through our [CPSC] Web site or Dells Web site that you have one of the affected models, take it out of the computer, store it someplace safe and call Dell to get a replacement battery," he said. "We really want consumers to respond quickly to this recall." Meanwhile, Kay said the scope of the problem could draw a closer look from government agencies, such as the Federal Aviation Administration. "Then theres going to be an awful moment where [manufacturers] say, We dont know where these things are," Kay said. "Not all of them do, because not everybodys selling direct to the customer. Theoretically, if you paid cash at retail and you never registered the product, nobody would know who you were." For its part, the FAA has already been testing laptop batteries, according to an agency spokesperson. Once the agencys recommendations are complete, the FAA will make a recommendation to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration as to whether the lithium-ion batteries used in most laptop computers are safe to use. The FAA says it has no plans to ground laptops. Click here to read more. Previously, the most recent battery recall by Dell was a December 2005 campaign to replace about 35,000 Dell notebook battery packs sold to corporations and consumers worldwide between October 2004 and October 2005. Apple Computer also recently launched a campaign to replace battery packs that shipped with its 15-inch MacBook Pro until May 2006. Editors Note: This story was updated to include additional information and comments from the CPSC, Sony and PC manufacturers. Additional reporting for this story was provided by Wayne Rash. Check out eWEEK.coms for the latest news in desktop and notebook computing.

John G. Spooner John G. Spooner, a senior writer for eWeek, chronicles the PC industry, in addition to covering semiconductors and, on occasion, automotive technology. Prior to joining eWeek in 2005, Mr. Spooner spent more than four years as a staff writer for CNET News.com, where he covered computer hardware. He has also worked as a staff writer for ZDNET News.

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