Update: Dell and regulatory agencies worldwide plan to recall 4.1 million notebook batteries, a company representative in the United States has confirmed.
The recall affects certain Inspiron, Latitude and Precision mobile workstation units shipped between April 2004 and July 18, 2006. Sony manufactured the batteries that are being recalled, the representative said. A Dell Australia spokesperson told CNET.com.au's sister site ZDNet Australia by e-mail there would be customers in Australia who have batteries involved in the recall and the computer maker would begin to contact them today.
In a subsequent telephone interview, the Australian spokesperson declined to break out the number of notebooks affected here, the cost to Dell or when the decision to recall the batteries was made. The recall announcement -- made a few hours ago in the United States -- followed chairman and founder Michael Dell's statement yesterday morning in Australia the computer maker was still investigating incidents where batteries in its laptops have reportedly exploded.
The Australian spokesperson said Dell customers here would be informed by phone, e-mail or advertisements placed in newspapers over the next couple of days. Replacement batteries would be sent to affected customers at no cost to them, he said.
He said Dell was about to kick off discussions with consumer product safety regulators in each state about the issue.
Dell wanted to ensure the safety of its customers, the US Dell representative confirmed. The 4.1 million units is a subset of the 22 million units shipped during that time frame, he said.
At the moment, this looks like the largest battery recall in the history of the electronics industry, said Roger Kay, an analyst with Endpoint Technologies Associates. "The scale of it is phenomenal."
Customers will be able to go to a Dell Web site (http://www.dellbatteryprogram.com) to determine if they need a new battery. The Web site is expected to go live tomorrow.
"It's a huge deal," IDC analyst Richard Shim said, particularly for Dell customers with employees in remote locations or travelling. "If you have people all over the field, then you're asking folks to send in the batteries and run off just AC [alternating current power] until they can get new batteries shipped out to them."
Dell had only six incidents over millions of units, Shim said, but it's "a dangerous situation".
Lithium ion batteries have two-to-three times the energy density of nickel-cadmium and nickel-metal hydride batteries and four times the energy density of lead-acid batteries. Higher energy density translates to longer battery life. Lithium ion batteries are used in consumer electronics and notebooks, which only require a limited amount of energy. Hybrid cars and power tools, however, generally use more traditional batteries, in part because of the risk of explosion.
The problems Dell is having stem from impurities within the anode and cathode of the battery, said Kay, who was briefed on the problems by Dell executives. Over time, those impurities, usually tiny pieces of metal, can work their way to the edge of the anode or cathode and rupture the isolator that sits between the two, he said. Once that happens, you get a short circuit and perhaps a fire.
In mobile phones, lithium ion batteries can overheat because of a short circuit. If temperature rises slowly, the battery case may melt. If it rises rapidly, however, enough pressure may be generated to create a small explosion in a lithium ion battery. Consumers have suffered severe burns as a result of these failures. The chemical reaction that produces energy in a lithium-ion battery is considered quite violent.
Several companies, including Valence Technology and PowerGenix, are working on safer lithium ion batteries or batteries which rely on different chemicals.
CNET News.com's Stephen Shankland contributed to this report.