Apple Recall Targets Laptop-Battery Danger

Apple Computer announces it is recalling nearly 2 million notebook computer batteries that could overheat and catch fire. The batteries, like 4 million recalled by Dell, are made by the same supplier, Sony.

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The Apple Computer company is recalling nearly two million laptop batteries because of a fire hazard. The move comes just over a week after rival computer-maker Dell announced its own battery recall. Both companies used batteries manufactured by the Sony Corporation.

NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY reporting:

Apple's recall of 1.8 million laptop batteries is the second biggest ever for a computer maker, topped only by Dell's announcement last week that it would replace more than four million batteries.

According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, batteries in at least six Dell laptops overheated or caught fire, causing some damage. The Commission's Scott Wolfson said Apple heard complaints from nine customers, two of whom suffered minor burns.

Mr. SCOTT WOLFSON (Spokesman, Consumer Product Safety Commission): We have the same issue once again of overheating, of that fire hazard. So once again, consumers need to pay attention to this recall.

HORSLEY: Sony spokesman, Rick Clancy, says the battery cells involved in both recalls were made at the same Sony factory in Japan. Sony also makes batteries for other PC makers, but Clancy does not expect any more recalls.

Mr. RICK CLANCY (Senior Vice President of Communications, Sony): Sony has introduced a number of additional safeguards into the battery cell manufacturing process to provide an even greater level of safety and security. We believe the issue has been addressed to the satisfaction of our customers.

HORSLEY: Sony was one of the pioneers in developing lithium ion batteries more than a decade ago. Since then, Clancy says, the technology has become a staple.

Mr. CLANCY: It can be found today in all sorts of products, from computers to cell phones, to music players. It's omnipresent in today's world of digital electronics.

HORSLEY: According to the Portable Rechargeable Battery Association, some two billion lithium ion cells will be manufactured this year. The batteries are well suited for electronics on the go because they're lightweight and keep the juice flowing for hours.

But battery expert Donald Sadoway of MIT says feeding that appetite for portable power is not easy.

Professor DONALD SADOWAY (Professor of Material Science and Engineering, MIT): More and more energy is getting jammed into a smaller and smaller volume, which means that you're setting the stage for more violent reactions.

HORSLEY: Sadoway, who's a professor of material science and engineering, says when you turn on your laptop or other portable device, lithium ions shuttle from the battery's negative to positive electrodes. What's in between is a flammable liquid.

Prof. SADOWAY: The liquid that's in a lithium ion battery is the cousin of ethyl alcohol. So, you know, the seeds of destruction are there if the battery malfunctions.

HORSLEY: The batteries have safeguards built in that are supposed to shut them down if the temperature climbs too high. But in rare cases, those safeguards fail. The Consumer Product Safety Commission is concerned enough about the risk that the recalled batteries cannot be shipped back to Apple or Dell in an airplane.

Professor Sadoway has been looking for a way to build safer lithium ion cells by replacing the volatile liquid center with a solid. Even though such research is important, he says, it's not been terribly fashionable.

Prof. SADOWAY: You know, if you say you're working on batteries, people look at you as though, gee, that's so 19th century. Why are you doing this? But portable power is so important in the modern era, because it makes no sense to have wireless devices if you're tethered to the wall.

HORSLEY: Sadoway should know. He spoke to NPR on his battery powered cell phone.

Scott Horsley, NPR News.

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