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Sony Urges More Companies to Recall Batteries

Battery headaches grow as more recalls announced from Dell, Toshiba and Fujitsu

(Tokyo) Sony urged a dozen laptop computer makers to recall more of its batteries that could overheat, the latest headache for the electronics company struggling to regain its luster as the world's premier electronics brand.

With two recalls announced Friday, the number of lithium-ion batteries that are being replaced now stands at about 7 million worldwide, Sony spokesman Takashi Uehara said. He refused to estimate how much it would cost the company.

Toshiba Corp. and Fujitsu Ltd. were the latest to tell customers to return batteries. A day earlier, IBM Corp. and Lenovo Group announced a recall of 526,000 batteries. Last month, it was Apple Computer Inc. and Dell Inc.

Dell also said it is increasing the size of its recall by 100,000, to 4.2 million, after it received more information from Sony. Dell first announced its record-setting recall in August.

Toshiba is recalling 830,000 Sony laptop batteries in its Dynabook, Qosmio, Satellite Portege and Tecra models. Fujitsu later said it was recalling an undisclosed number used in 19 of its laptop models worldwide. Both companies said more details would be released later.

Uehara said neither Toshiba nor Fujitsu have reported injuries or damage involving the battery problem, and Sony's recall request Friday was to "reassure customers and remove their concerns about accidents."

Sony has said the batteries could catch fire in rare cases when microscopic metal particles come into contact with other parts of the battery cell, leading to a short circuit. Typically a battery pack will shut down when there is a short circuit, but on occasion, the battery could catch fire.

David Yang, another Sony spokeswoman, said the battery cells in the recalled parts were made using an earlier-generation manufacturing process. Laptop makers, however, may have used those batteries in current or older models on the market.

The laptops being recalled by Dell, for instance, were sold between April 2004 through July 2006.

Yang said Sony's current manufacturing process has since added more safeguards to "greatly reduce" the number of loose particles that cause the batteries to short-circuit or overheat.

"It cannot be completely eliminated but we've taken steps to greatly reduce it," he said.

Sony said the battery cells in question were also placed in other electronics, such as portable DVD players and camcorders, but Sony has not received any reports of problems with those products.

U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission spokeswoman Julie Vallese said notebook computers are more vulnerable because their microprocessors and intense user demands generate a lot of heat.

Sony is working with the agency to further pinpoint the production lines, manufacturing plants and electronics makers behind the affected battery cells. Vallese said the number of recalled batteries can be expected to rise as Sony steps up its investigation.

"Hopefully, it will all be spelled out at once, instead of having a battery recall announced every few weeks," Vallese said. "Sony is working to put out what it knows in one announcement later."

Vallese said there were about 50 incidents of burning batteries reported in the past five years during which tens of millions of notebook computers were sold in the U.S.

"While the risk of smoking or fire with these batteries is a real risk, the risk is low," said Vallese. "We don't want to give the notion that notebook computers are unsafe to use."

The recalls should not set a wave of panic, she said.

Friday's announcements marked the first time Japanese laptop makers were caught up in Sony's massive global battery recall.

It's a major embarrassment for the Japanese electronics and entertainment powerhouse, which is in the midst of a major overhaul of its operations involving closures of plants and divisions and job losses.

While Sony said it was still trying to assess the extent of the damage and additional spending for the battery problem, the Japanese newspaper Asahi said that an initially estimated cost of 30 billion yen ($254.2 million) could balloon to twice as much.

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