Summer Fire Season


I asked Steve Hogan to take a look at the latest news on Lithium Ion battery fires. Here’s what he came up with. Thanks Steve. –Rob

The ongoing recall of laptop batteries produced by Sony Energy Devices Corp of Tokyo is continuing to grow. What started as a relatively small and downplayed recall effecting only Dell portables is flaring into an ever growing list, a “who’s who” of Laptop manufacturers. Dell, Apple, Lenovo/IBM, Toshiba, Panasonic, Acer, Gateway, Fujistsu, HP and of course Sony, have all been tender for the continuing and uncontained fire that is the Lithium Ion battery problem.

In addition to the current recall of 9.6 million Sony batteries used by every major portable manufacturer, there were an additional 40 million cells destroyed by Sony as a part of this recall. The information on destroyed cells was released and reported last October so there is the probability that the figures are still rising. While this is a huge number of effected portables it’s at least somewhat comforting to know that Sony is only the number two producer of lithium ion cells. Sanyo is reported to be number one with 42 million cells per month, Sony is number two with 27 million cells per month and Samsung is number 3 with twenty six million cells per month. These figures are based on each company’s October 2006 quarterly projections.

Fortunately all of the cells in a single battery will come from the same manufacturer. This is due to the charge and discharge rate of the cells. If these cells were mixed there would be even more batteries recalled.

Why no recalls for Sanyo or Samsung produced batteries? Are their standards that much better than Sony’s?The responsibility for getting a handle on the cause and cure of this problem was assumed by the newly created IPC Lithium Ion Battery Subcommittee as early as last October 2006. “We have established a publication date of 6/15/2007 for the standard'” said Anthony F. Corkell, Quality and Standard executive at Lenovo and Chair of the IPC Lithium Ion battery Subcommittee. Talk about closing the barn door after the horses are out. When the subcommittee was formed last October there were no standards in place. How that happens could be the topic of a whole new discussion but it’s been suggested that the reason was worry. Worry over the intellectual property and patent control by the makers and OEM users of the batteries.

How many fires have there really been? Laptop vendors insist that the number of actual fires is very small. All of the figures I’ve seen have been low, amounting to as few as 16 and as many as 46 reported by the Consumer Products Safety Commission. These are relatively insignificant figures considering the number of laptops produced. If that were the case would all these companies really suffer the losses that a recall like this causes? Look at these figures below and keep in mind the 10 million number we’re seeing for Sony batteries recalled.

Portable Battery Recall Summary

Manufacturer Total Number 2004 2005 2006 2007
Apple 1.8 Million 1/04   8/24/06  
Dell 4.2 Million   12/15/05 8/15/06  
Panasonic 6,000     9/05/06  
Lenovo 731,000     9/28/06 3/07
Toshiba 830,000     10/06  
Fujitsu 338,000     10/06  
Hitachi 16,000     10/06  
Gateway 49,000     10/06 6/07
Sony/Vaio 90,000     10/06  
Acer 27,000       4/07

Consider that there is no overall control of the information released by the factories involved. The total comes close but is still more than a million short of the reported 9.6 million recalled batteries. You have to wonder why the figures don’t match and why there isn’t better control over a known problem.

It’s also worth noticing that Apple actually had the first battery recall on Laptops in January of 2004. This recall was for batteries produced by LG Chem Company of South Korea. All of the batteries involved in that recall were produced in the last week of December 2003 and appear to be unrelated to the Sony recall.

Because consumers are now enjoying a full three and one half years of various battery recalls, you just know that something other than our safety and protection is being considered. I’m betting that most consumers assume that the standards on battery production and safety would be in place before the product was given to the public. Before the possible fire hazard was packed in a carry on and stuffed overhead in a plane or in the trunk of a car carrying children to school. I have to remove my shoes so airport security can look for something as obscure as a shoe bomb while literally hundreds of known fire hazards are flying with me to my vacation destination? Doesn’t make much sense really.

The more I learn, the more questions I have. Do 47 faulty batteries really warrant this size recall? Are the Laptop manufacturers really this conscientious? Are we seeing any thing close to the real number of overheating problems reported to the factories? I don’t think so. April 2007 did see an announcement from the IPC on Standards For Power Conversions (AC adapters) that includes but is not limited to portable computers. While there have been some recent recalls of AC adapters, they don’t pose the same danger as the batteries.

To date I still haven’t found any standards announced. I’m guessing that the proposed 6/15/2007 date was pushed back but I haven’t seen a formal announcement. Will it take an injury, court case, or worse? It seems obvious to me that Sony is the one with control over the public’s safety on this issue. It certainly has access to those who purchased product involved in it’s own recall. Why haven’t they named all the companies that purchased recalled product? That would make it much easier on the consumer.

The idea of Laptop manufacturers voluntarily joining in the recall only serves the companies involved. Well that’s not totally true. It also serves the shareholders. The person it doesn’t serve is the one at risk of fire damage, injury, or death. As a result the recalls just keep trickling in. This exact scenario was suggested in the October 2006 Pit Blog and podcast interview of Tony Olson, CEO of D2 Worldwide by our own Rob Cheng . Would things be moving faster if all those who purchased recalled batteries were named in the beginning? You can decide whether Sony’s biggest concern is consumer safety or covering it’s own _ _ _.

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