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Apple Blames iPod Nano Fires on Lithium Batteries

Aug 20, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP Japanese officials are investigating two more reported iPod Nano fires in that country.  Apple, the maker of iPods, blamed the fires on defective batteries from a single supplier.

According to Japan's Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, the iPod Nano fires under investigation involved an iPod Nano, model number MA099, which singed nearby paper in August 2008, and model MA005, which burned a Japanese traditional "tatami" mat, in January. Both players were twisted out of shape from the heat and became unusable. The Japanese ministry had also received a similar report of another iPod Nano fire last March. In all of the fires, the iPods began to overheat while they were being recharged.

Neither Apple nor the Ministry would say which manufacturer made the defective batteries.  In a written statement, Apple said the defect affected iPod Nanos sold between September 2005 and December 2006. The company's statement added that "There have been no reports of serious injuries or property damage, and no reports of incidents for any other iPod Nano model."

IPod Nano fires are nothing new.  In October 2007, Danny Williams, who worked in a kiosk at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, reported that his iPod Nano caught fire in his pocket.  Fortunately, Williams was not injured, although his iPod Nano was destroyed.

IPod Nanos use lithium-ion batteries.  Lithium batteries have been a known fire risk.  On August 24, 2006, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission and Apple issued a recall of rechargeable, lithium-ion batteries made by Sony for certain iBook G4 and PowerBook G4 notebook computers. The recall was based on nine reports of batteries overheating, two of which involved minor burns.

Last August, Finnish phone maker Nokia recalled some 300 million batteries made by Matsushita between December 2005 and November 2006. In December that same year, Sanyo recalled 1.3 million mobile phone handset batteries for safety reasons.

Some blame the problems with lithium batteries on shoddy manufacturing.  In an interview with InformationWeek last October, Donald R. Sadoway, professor of materials chemistry at MIT, says that lithium ion batteries can be manufactured to operate safely, but that efforts to cut costs have undermined the technology.   "As we've moved the technology from Japan to China, we've seen a decrease in reliability. That's not to say that because it comes from China it's of inferior quality, but I don't think anyone would be surprised to learn that quality varies widely in Chinese factories," Sadoway said.

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