updated 8/24/2006 7:58:34 AM ET 2006-08-24T11:58:34

Japan's trade ministry on Thursday ordered Sony Corp. and Dell Inc. to investigate trouble involving laptop batteries made by the Japanese manufacturer, saying they overheated and caught fire in at least two instances in the country.

Lithium-ion batteries manufactured by Sony for Dell laptops imported to Japan overheated and caught fire in at least two separate instances in October and June, the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry said in a statement.

The ministry also pointed to problems with battery cells supplied by Sony for Dell computers in the U.S. and other countries, and told the companies to investigate the safety of Dell models Latitude, Inspiron and Precision imported to Japan from April 2005.

Sony and Dell must report on their findings by the end of August, or face a fine under Japan's consumer safety laws, the statement said.  The ministry also instructed other Japanese electronic makers to check the safety of their laptop batteries.

The order came after problems with Sony battery cells forced Dell to recall 4.1 million laptop batteries worldwide earlier this month, the largest recall of electronics-related products in U.S. history.

The problematic lithium-ion batteries could cause the Dell machines to overheat and catch fire, according to the Round Rock, Texas-based computer maker.

Battery packs contain cells of rolled up metal strips.  Sony has said that during production, crimping the rolls left tiny shards of metal loose in the cells, and some of those shards can cause batteries to short-circuit.

The battery woes have come as embarrassing news for Dell, the world's largest PC maker, and for Sony, which has been trying to overhaul its electronics operations amid a slump in profits.

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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