The manufacturer of a notebook PC battery that was seen exploding in dramatic TV footage apparently skipped safety tests when it tested newer battery models.
Video of the notebook PC exploding in flames shocked viewers and drove down the share prices of its manufacturer, LG Electronics, and battery maker, LG Chem.
According to the most recently published LG Chem safety specifications seen by Texyt.com, the company no longer carries out three safety tests that were designed to ensure batteries could survive physical damage without exploding. The company also reduced the severity of a test that is intended to check battery safety when overheated.
HP and Dell use LG Chem batteries
More than 80 percent of LG Chem's notebook battery production is used by HP and Dell for laptop PCs, according to Korean analysts' reports. The company ships roughly ten million of these cylindrical lithium ion battery cells each month. They are packed together side-by-side inside notebook PC battery modules. A notebook battery contains at least six such cells, with the largest in general use containing as many as 12 cells. LG's ICR18650 series cells for laptop PCs are 3.7v cylindrical lithium ion batteries. They are 6.5cm long and 1.8cm wide.
LG Chem's testing regime for its battery designs includes drop tests, internal short circuit testing, overcharging and overheating to 130º C. Even in these extreme conditions, the batteries do not explode or catch fire, according to reports published by the company.
Safety tests apparently dropped
Until 2005, LG Chem's safety regime (see image) also included an impact test, crush test and penetration test. These tests no longer appear in the company's most recently published safety reports for cylindrical lithium ion batteries, which are dated 2006. In addition, according to other LG documents, the maximum temperature used in the heating test was reduced from 150º to 130º C between 2003 and 2005.
Korean TV news reports on the LG notebook explosion showed a lithium ion battery cell from an unidentified manufacturer bursting into flame when it was compressed in a laboratory test.
“Notebook computers are a tool we use every day... anyone could become a victim", warned a writer for Korea's Digital Times, in a call for safer notebook batteries.
“People do need to be aware that there's a risk of very serious injury. If there's any sign that a laptop battery is overheating badly, stay well away from it”, said one doctor interviewed on Korean TV.
Owners of notebooks made by LG and other manufacturers expressed alarm at the incident on Korean online forums. “How can I dare put that bomb on my lap again,” asked one man. "My notebook always seems to be too hot anyway, how can I possibly tell when it's getting dangerous?", questioned another.
Smoke poured from laptop
The incident was caught on video and received considerable media attention because the notebook belonged to a reporter from the Chosun Ilbo, South Korea's largest newspaper, who was visiting a hospital with a group of other journalists who also witnessed the incident.
The journalist first noticed smoke wafting from his laptop bag. When he pulled the PC out, it was too hot to hold comfortably and smoke began to gush from the vents.
The reporter placed the PC on the floor and warned people to stay away. As the smoke intensified, he began to spray it with a dry fire extinguisher. Suddenly, jets of flame appeared and the battery compartment exploded with a loud crack, lifting the notebook from the floor and ejecting gouts of molten material across the room. A second, even larger, explosion which followed was caught on video. Hot fragments and burning plastic left scorch marks on the walls and floor.
The journalists controlled the resulting fire with extinguishers. Nobody was injured in the incident.
Afterwards, debris was found scattered up to ten meters away. The battery's outer casing appeared to have disintegrated, and some of its individual internal battery cells were visible near the computer – all appeared charred and distorted.
"LG Electronics is collaborating with LG Chem, the battery maker, to investigate and determine the cause of the problem, as under normal usage conditions, this type of problem should not occur," an LG spokeswoman said. The damaged notebook was handed to LG's investigators, local press reports said.
The company did not identify the product that exploded, but from photos it appeared to be an LG Xnote Z1, a 12.1-inch screen notebook with a 1.83 Ghz Intel Core 2 Duo CPU and ATI X1350 graphics chip. The notebook has been on the market for less than one year.
Shares in LG Electronics and LG Chem both fell by approximately five percent as news of the event spread. LG has spent heavily to promote the Xnote brand, which it uses for a broad range of notebook and tablet PCs.
As the power density of batteries increases, fears have grown of the risk of fires and explosions caused by rare, but catastrophic, internal short circuits that convert a significant part of a battery's electrical energy to heat in a short time. In the US, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the body which regulates air travel safety, recently introduced restrictions on the number and size of lithium ion batteries that can be taken aboard flights as checked baggage.
Sony paid almost half a billion dollars to recall and replace notebook batteries after one was photographed exploding in 2006.
LG Chem planned to spend approximately $2 billion expanding and upgrading its battery manufacturing business between 2005 and 2010, according to a report published by BusinessWeek in 2005.
Note: This is an updated version of a story originally published Jan 12