Dell Inc said Monday it will recall 4.1 million notebook computer batteries made by Sony Corp because they can overheat and catch fire.
Dell negotiated conditions of the recall with the US federal Consumer Product Safety Commission, which called it the largest electronics-related recall ever involving the agency.
A Dell spokesman said the Sony batteries were placed in notebooks that were shipped between April 1, 2004, and July 18 of this year.
"In rare cases, a short-circuit could cause the battery to overheat, causing a risk of smoke and/or fire," said the spokesman, Ira Williams. "It happens in rare cases, but we opted to take this broad action immediately."
The battery packs were included in some models of Dell's Latitude, Inspiron, XPS and precision mobile workstation notebooks.
Dell planned to launch a Web site overnight that would describe the affected models. Williams said the Web site would tell consumers how to get free replacement batteries from Dell.
Rick Clancy, a Sony spokesman, said the companies have studied problems with the battery packs intensely for more than a month, after getting reports of about a half-dozen fires or smoking laptops in the US.
Lithium-ion batteries have been around for about a decade and are used in devices such as cellphones and digital music players. Clancy said tiny metallic particles sometimes short-circuit the battery cells, adding that configuration in an electronic device can contribute to problems.
"But it begins with the [battery] cell, and we acknowledge that," he said. "That's why we're supporting Dell in this recall."
Clancy said Sony would help Dell pay for the recall, but neither he nor Dell officials would estimate the campaign's price tag or say how the companies would divide the cost.
The larger potential cost for Dell is that such a huge recall could dampen future notebook sales.
Dell rival Hewlett-Packard Co said it does not use Sony batteries and was not affected by the recall. Apple Computer Inc is investigating whether its notebook batteries meet safety and performance standards, spokeswoman Lynn Fox said.
There have been numerous recent news reports about Dell laptops bursting into flames, and pictures of some of the charred machines have circulated on the Internet.
Dell, the world's largest maker of personal computers, confirmed that two weeks ago, one of its laptops caught fire in Illinois, and the owner dunked it in water to douse the flames. Other reports have surfaced from as far away as Japan and Singapore.
Monday's move was at least the third recall of Dell notebook batteries in the past five years.
Dell recalled 22,000 notebook computer batteries last December after symptoms that were similar to those that prompted Monday's recall. The company also recalled 284,000 batteries in 2001.
Consumers with affected laptops should only run the machines on a power cord, said Scott Wolfson, a spokesman for the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
The safety agency knows of 339 incidents in which lithium batteries used in laptops and cellphones -- not just Dell products -- overheated between 2003 and last year, Wolfson said.
The list of incidents ranges from smoke and minor skin burns to actual injuries and property damage, Wolfson said.