FAQ: How to smoke out that recalled battery

Dell is recalling millions of notebook batteries that could cause a fire. Here's the worst that can happen and what you can do.

Tom Krazit Former Staff writer, CNET News
Tom Krazit writes about the ever-expanding world of Google, as the most prominent company on the Internet defends its search juggernaut while expanding into nearly anything it thinks possible. He has previously written about Apple, the traditional PC industry, and chip companies. E-mail Tom.
Tom Krazit
6 min read
And to think people used to be put off by the phrase "batteries not included."

Dell's immense recall of 4.1 million notebook batteries is the largest recall in consumer electronics history, let alone the PC industry. The recall affects batteries shipped between April 2004 and July 18, 2006, for certain models of Dell notebooks.

Sony manufactured the battery technology that is being recalled, a company spokesman confirmed. At the moment, the recall just relates to Sony batteries that were sold by Dell, but a representative for the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission said the agency is looking into how Sony's battery technology is used by the PC industry in general to protect the safety of consumers.

Nervous Dell owners around the world are scrutinizing their battery packs and wondering if their laptop is one step away from bursting into a high-tech inferno. Other laptop owners also have to wonder if their systems might also be affected by faulty lithium ion batteries.

Here's what you need to know.

Q: What is Dell recalling?
The part affected by the recall is the battery pack, not the notebook itself, so put away those hopes for a free system upgrade. Sony manufactures all of the battery cells and most of the battery packs used in the affected Dell notebooks. The company says it has received six reports of property damage from overheating notebooks, but other reports say far more incidents have occurred.

Models in the hot seat

Dell plans to announce a recall of 4.1 million batteries worldwide on Tuesday. Here's a list of the affected models.

D410, D500, D505, D510, D520, D600, D610, D620, D800, D810
6000, 8500, 8600, 9100, 9200, 9300, 500m, 510m, 600m, 6400, E1505, 700m, 710m, 9400, E1705
Dell Precision
M20, M60, M70 and M90 mobile workstations
XPS, XPS Gen2, XPS M170 and XPS M1710

Source: Consumer Product Safety Commission

How do I know if I'm affected by the recall?
Have your battery pack's serial number handy before you visit this special Web site Dell has set up, or call 1-866-342-0011.

The battery pack is located on the underside of the notebook, in slightly different places depending on the model of the notebook. Shut off the notebook, flip it over, and the battery is labeled with a little icon that looks like an AA battery with a lightning bolt. Lift the battery out, and the serial number is located on a white sticker with a bar code. It reads something like JP-07Y356-XXXX-XXX-0639 (that's part of the serial number for the Dell battery pack on my work-issued Latitude D600).

The key sequence in that serial number is the last five characters in the six-character grouping, in this case "07Y356". Compare that five-character sequence to a list of 36 different part numbers on Dell's battery recall Web site. If they match, you've got a winner (sort of).

My battery pack matches the sequence listed on Dell's site. What do I do?
Stop using it. Immediately. If you pulled it out to check the serial number, and put it back in to go online and check the site, shut down your laptop immediately and remove the battery again. You can still use your notebook with an AC power adapter or docking station, but do not use it with a battery listed in the recall program.

On Dell's Web site, you can enter your entire serial number to check if you need a new battery. That page will also link you to an order form for a new battery and let you know how to send the old battery back to Dell for proper disposal. Don't throw out old notebook batteries unless you take them to a hazardous materials disposal site.

My notebook is one of the models listed as possibly being affected by the recall, but my battery's serial number does not match the list on Dell's site. Do I need a new battery, or can I continue to use my current battery?
You're fine. Double check that serial number, enter it a couple of times, and make sure you're not confusing the letter "O" with the number zero, according to Dell's blog. But if it comes back clean you're not using one of the affected batteries, according to Dell.

Dell battery packs

What causes these batteries to burst into flame?
The same thing that causes any fire: heat, fuel and oxygen, said Forrest Norrod, vice president of engineering with Dell.

A battery cell is basically a cylinder stuffed with two metal spirals that have the two electrodes needed for a battery, an insulating material between those spirals, and electrolyte fluid. Making a battery cell is a lot like filling a soda can on the assembly line; the bottom and sides of the cylinder form one piece; the combination of the spirals and insulating materials is inserted into that container; and then the top is affixed. Dell believes that little pieces of metal are dislodged into the cell when the lid is put on the top of the cylinder.

Over time, those pieces of metal can work their way through the insulating material and cause a short circuit when current is allowed to flow uncontrolled between the two electrodes. Dell estimates that most of the batteries that failed were in use for 10 to 14 months.

If the pieces of metal are larger than a certain size, Sony or the other battery manufacturers will notice them in testing. If they are too small, they'll cause a small short circuit that might shut down the cell, but won't cause a larger problem.

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But the pieces of metal that fall in between those sizes are another story. They will cause current to flow directly to the cathode, which is made of lithium cobalt oxide. The current breaks that down into lithium and oxygen. So now you've got fuel (lithium), heat (electrical current) and oxygen. That will cause a fire.

Does this happen only when the notebook is on?
It's more likely to happen while browsing the Web or playing a game, but it can also happen while the notebook is turned off, Norrod said. When the notebook is on and using the battery, the cell is changing because it's either charging or discharging, and that can alter the cell enough to work the metal particle through the last little bit of the insulator, he said.

But the metal also can move when a notebook is jostled or dropped, Norrod said. Reports have surfaced about notebooks catching fire in cargo holds or in pickup trucks.

Which other notebook makers are using these particular batteries?
A Sony representative said his company provides the battery cells and battery packs to other PC companies, but that none of those PC companies has reported problems with the same frequency that Dell has.

Hewlett-Packard does not use Sony's battery packs, but it does use Sony's battery cell technology in some of the battery packs used with its notebooks, a company spokesman said. Lenovo and Gateway said they hadn't seen an abnormal number of battery-related problems, but did not comment on whether they were using Sony's technology. Apple Computer said it was looking into the issue.

Is there anything battery makers or notebook companies can do to prevent this from happening?
There are already some features built into the battery packs to detect problems that occur more frequently, like faster-than-recommended charging or discharging of the battery, Norrod said. These circuits operate independently of the battery and can detect problems even when the notebook is off, he said.

But when those little pieces of metal make their way through the insulating materials, you might as well kiss that notebook goodbye, and you'll probably want to take a few steps back. "When you've got metallic penetration in just the right region inside the cell, there's nothing you can do. Once that starts, there's no way to stop it," Norrod said.

Sony made changes in its manufacturing process around February or March to reduce the chances of metal fragments entering the cell, Norrod said. However, Dell continued to ship batteries made using the older manufacturing process until July 18 because it did not realize that its problems were being caused by the older technique, he said.

What about alternative sources of power?
Check out this story for more details on alternative battery technologies.