Video: Will cell phone batteries explode?

By Senior producer
updated 8/25/2006 4:43:07 PM ET 2006-08-25T20:43:07

Like so many things nowadays, the laptop battery brouhaha started with a viral video.

A viewer sent me a link to a You Tube video clip of a Dell laptop on fire at a Japanese convention.  I did some digging, and it turns out that video clip was already on Boing Boing and many of the tech blogs.

Days later, Dell issued one of the largest recalls in tech history.  More than 4 million laptops were recalled, all of them powered by the same kind of Sony lithium-ion battery.

Initially, the buzz was about Dell’s dilemma.  Lots of “Dude, my Dell’s on fire,” jokes and the like.

But yesterday, Apple announced a similar recall, reminding all of us that the malfunction had nothing to do with the computer.  The Sony battery was causing all the problems.

Those lithium-ion batteries are in more than just laptops.  They are lightweight and they charge up quickly and efficiently, so they’re ideal for any portable mobile device.  The batteries are in MP3 players, PDA devices, and cell phones.

But is it time for warning labels on the box of your new toy?  Not quite.

First, let’s take a look at why the batteries are burning up.  I’m not Mr. Wizard, but I read up on this.

Chemical reactions make batteries work.  The positive and negative charges combine to create energy.

These lithium batteries have a super thin wall, one person described it as a thin sheet of paper, between the two charges.  Anything that penetrates that wall, even a tiny shard of metal or debris, can cause the reactions to speed up and generate too much heat for the battery.  Thus, a fire.

It sounds scary, but let’s put it into perspective.  Dell recalled 4 million computers on reports that 33 had caught fire.  For Apple, nine reported incidents and nearly 2 million recalled.  The odds are not good that your computer will catch fire, but take them up on the recall offer just in case.

As for the myriad of other products that use lithium-ion technology, the risk is miniscule.  One of the reasons why laptops are more likely to ignite is the other components included which also generate heat.

For your PDA and cell phone, experts recommend keeping them away from hot surfaces, the sun, and water—which you should do anyway.

As for the batteries, it is not likely the case that the lithium technology is inherently flawed.  If I had to guess, I’d say that the demand for super thin, super light gadgets has increased the production of batteries to a point where quality control has suffered.

Perhaps there is a bell curve on portability.

But that will not stop the creation of phones thinner than the Motorola RAZR, and laptops lighter than two pounds.

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