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Exploding gadgets -- it's not just laptops

Thursday, it was Apple's turn in the doghouse. The company announced it was recalling nearly 2 million laptop computer batteries out of concern that they may overheat and catch fire. Last week, you'll recall, Dell recalled 4.1 million laptop batteries. No surprise here. The computers use essentially the same batteries, which are manufactured by Sony. The only surprise is this: Where are all the other laptop computer makers that use Sony batteries? Their day in the negative PR light will come soon.

Apple's announcement in a strange way takes the heat off Dell, confirming that the overheating problem is not exclusive to Michael Dell's notebooks. In fact, it's not exclusive to laptops. The problem of exploding gadgets and volatile battieres has been quietly festering for years.

The same battery technology used in Dell and Apple laptops is used in nearly all our high-tech gadgets today. And almost all of them are just as likely, under certain circumstances, to catch fire. Even before this rather prominent round of laptop recalls began last week, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission had presided over 23 battery-related recalls in the past three years alone.

Cell phones, flashlights, portable DVD players, GPS gadgets, even cordless drills also have all been recalled in recent months over concerns about dangerous batteries. During that time, there have been nearly 200 reported incidents of fires and explosions resulting from battery failure.

All of these recalls involve lithium ion rechargeable batteries, which now are the industry standard, because of their ability to yield high power in small spaces. It’s that concentration of power which makes these batteries more dangerous.

When properly harnessed, a heavy-duty lithium ion battery can power today’s feature-rich laptops, jam-packed with wireless chips, DVD players, and enormous hard drives. When out of control -- engaged in something engineers call a “runaway thermal reaction” -- a lithium ion battery can explode with surprising fury.

“To meet consumer demand for smaller, more powerful products, (companies) add a little more risk to the product,” said Richard Stern, an associate director at the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

Lithium ion batteries are a relatively new technology. Invented by Sony in the early 1990s, they didn’t supplant nickel-based batteries until the early part of this decade. Now, most laptops and almost all cell phones use lithium-based batteries. Lithium batteries are three times as powerful as the nickel batteries they replaced. Put another way, they pack equal power into a space three times as small.

Explode after a single drop

There is, however, a downside.

“Lithium is highly volatile,” said energy analyst Sara Bradford at Frost & Sullivan. It’s far more volatile than old-fashioned nickel-cadmium (Ni-Cad) battteries.

As an example, shock vibration in lithium batteries can cause combustion. In one incident reported to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, a consumer dropped his phone, then picked it up and put it in his pocket. Within a minute, the phone began smoldering, searing his legs.

The phone’s impact disturbed battery components enough to create an electric short, which led to a fire, said Stern. “We have seen several incidents,” like that, he added.

Nickel-powered cell phones withstood such drops without threat of explosive chemical reactions, Bradford said. Still, companies believe consumers are willing to take that risk.

“Unless we as consumers are willing to go back to those huge phones we’re kind of stuck with (lithium ion),” she said. ”Everybody is hungry for more power and want devices to last longer and longer and lithium is the best that we have.”

Circuits to prevent fires

Lithium batteries are loaded with electronics designed to prevent the volatile, runaway chemical reactions. These include circuits that prevent overcharging, temperature sensors that shut the battery down if it gets too hot and load balancers that notice if an individual cell is working too hard.

When a battery explosions occurs, usually several things have to go wrong, including the failure of one of these security systems, Bradford said.

Among the necessary failures is human error. Proper venting is necessary to allow a hot battery to release extra energy, and battery manufacturers warn consumers not to cover vents.

Nevertheless, some fires begin because consumers throw their laptop on the bed, smother it in blankets, then plug it in to recharge, said Dean Gallea, head of the Computer Technology Testing Unit at Consumers Union. Laptops stored in direct sunlight in a hot car also might explode.

“I think heat is the culprit, combined with marginal quality defects,” Gallea said.

Safety tips

Still, we weren’t talking about exploding CD players or laptop computers 10 years ago.

“There wasn't enough energy back to then to start a fire,” Stern said. “(A battery) may have leaked chemicals on your hand, but there wasn't the available energy to create an explosion. But as technology companies get more aggressive,” batteries will get more and more powerful, he said.

In addition to keeping gadgets properly vented, Stern suggests consumers pay close attention to gadgets after they are dropped to see if an inadvertent chemical reaction has begun. If something has gone wrong, the gadget will swell or start to become hot within 30-60 seconds. In other words, don’t simply pick up a dropped cell phone and put it in your pocket.

Gallea also says don’t leave charging cell phones or computers on your car seat in direct sunlight– that’s asking for trouble. The same goes for portable DVD players the kids use.

Consumers looking to buy replacement batteries or chargers should be wary of third-party gadgets. It’s not clear those gadgets will incorporate the same heat-limiting circuits that the original manufactories deploy.

And a really cautious user shouldn’t charge a gadget like a laptop computer while using it at the same time.

“That's the way of generating the most heat internally. You’ve got the processor and the graphic chip and the charger all generating heat at the same time,” he said.

Explosion requires 'perfect storm'

It’s important to note that, while dramatic, incidents of exploding laptops and cell phones are extremely rare. Driving a car is far, far more dangerous than plugging in a DVD player.

When explosions have occurred, they were likely the result of a “perfect storm” combining consumer neglect and manufacturing flaws, said Consumer Reports technology editor Jeff Fox.

“The average person using (a computer) on a kitchen table is not in mortal danger,” he said. “Most people who use things judiciously are not in danger.”

Still, Power expects more incidents and more battery recalls are on the way. It's still not clear how many other laptop manufacturors use Sony lithium batteries; and frankly, how many other lithium batteries post a hazard.

"There’s no reason to believe the number of incidents aren't going to continue to rise with the number of products on the market,” he said. “The harder you work the battery, the hotter its going to run … (and) the more battery-operated products out there, the more likely you are to have failure that could result in property damage.”