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Thu, Aug 17, 2006 - Page 10 News List

Dell recall raises concerns about lithium-ion batteries


Dell Inc's record-setting recall of 4.1 million notebook computer batteries raised safety concerns about the power source of countless electronic devices, but experts said the problem appears to stem from flaws in the production of the laptop batteries, not the underlying technology.

Customers began calling the company and surfing to a special Web site on Tuesday to order replacements for the lithium-ion batteries that could cause their Dell machines to overheat and even catch fire. The batteries were supplied to Dell by Japan's Sony Corp.

Lithium-ion batteries are not only used to power laptops, but also digital cameras, music players, cell phones and other gadgets.

Lithium has been replacing nickel-cadmium and other materials for batteries used in a range of electronic devices since the early 1990s. The smaller, lighter batteries produce more power to drive increasingly demanding gadgets, such as the latest laptops.

Battery packs contain cells of rolled up metal strips. During the manufacturing process at a Sony factory in Japan, crimping the rolls left tiny shards of metal loose in the cells, and some of those shards caused batteries to short-circuit and overheat, according to Sony.

Roger Kay, an analyst with Endpoint Technologies Associates, called the situation "a nightmare for Sony" but said the recall was not likely to scare manufacturers away from using lithium-ion batteries.

"Well-made lithium-ion batteries are perfectly safe," he said. "This is a manufacturing problem and not an indictment of lithium-ion technology."

Still, there have been previous reports of problems with lithium-ion batteries. Last year, Apple Computer Inc recalled batteries made by South Korea's LG Chem Ltd.

And in 2004, the US Federal Aviation Administration banned shipments of lithium batteries from the cargo holds of passenger planes because of a potential fire hazard, when they are shipped in bulk. Passengers, however, are still allowed to carry laptops or cellphones on planes.

Sony provides battery components for other computer makers, including Lenovo Group Ltd (聯想), which said it gets a "handful" of reports each year of overheated batteries but does not plan a recall. Spokesman Bob Page said Lenovo's machines have other features, including software that disables the machine if it detects unsafe conditions.

Dell has been using Sony battery parts longer than other manufacturers, and Lenovo and others may eventually develop similar problems, Kay said.

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