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Lithium Ion Battery Fires Could Turn Boeing 787 Dreamliner into a Nightmare

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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dreamliner,boeing,aircraft,batteryBoeing’s Dreamliner has likely become a nightmare for the company, its airline customers and regulators worldwide. An inflight lithium-ion battery fire broke out Wednesday on an All Nippon Airways 787 over Japan, forcing an emergency landing. And another battery fire occurred last week aboard a Japan Airlines 787 at Boston’s Logan International Airport. Both battery failures resulted in release of flammable electrolytes, heat damage and smoke on the aircraft, according to the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

The FAA on Wednesday ordered U.S. operators to temporarily ground the aircraft to avoid the risk of additional battery fires. Before any Dreamliners resume flight, operators of U.S.-registered 787s will have to demonstrate to the FAA that the batteries are safe. “These battery problems, if not corrected, could result in damage to critical systems and structures, and the potential for fire in the electrical compartment,” according to a statement issued by the FAA, which says it is investigating. The statement makes no mention of GS Yuasa Corp., the company that makes the 787’s batteries, nor does it call upon Boeing specifically to demonstrate battery safety.

In addition to reviewing the aircraft’s design, manufacture and assembly, the FAA says it also will validate that batteries and the battery system on the aircraft comply with the “special condition” the agency issued as part of the 787’s certification. This condition was that Boeing take a series of protective measures to ensure the batteries wouldn’t fail, causing the exact same problems the company now faces. The 787’s short history has been filled with battery and mechanical problems, as outlined in Patrick Smith’s “Ask the Pilot” January 16 blog post.

The 787 relies on two identical lithium-ion batteries, each about one and a half to two times the size of a typical car battery, The New York Times reported on Thursday. One battery starts the auxiliary power unit (a small tail engine that provides power for the plane while on the ground), and the other starts the pilot’s computer displays and serves as a backup for flight systems.

United Airlines is currently the only U.S. airline operating the 787, with six airplanes in service. All Nippon announced a grounding of all 17 of its Dreamliners on Wednesday, while Japan Airlines has likewise taken its seven 787s out of circulation pending a safety investigation.

Boeing CEO Jim McNerney responded to the FAA directive  grounding the 787s with a statement indicating the company is working “around the clock” to help solve the problem and is “confident the 787 is safe.”

The 787 Dreamliner is a midsize aircraft capable of flying longer nonstop routes with cleaner, more humid cabin air pressurized to make passengers feel as though they are at 1,800 meters, instead of the usual 2,400 meters. Such modifications are made possible by the use of carbon fiber, which is stronger, lighter and rust-resistant compared with the typical aluminum fuselage. This strength also enables Boeing to make the aircraft with larger windows that feature electrochromic shading that automatically darkens in bright sunlight. In 2011, after a three-year delay, the 787 became the first commercial aircraft with a shell made primarily of carbon fiber, which promises 20 percent fuel savings for airlines.

Lithium-ion batteries—used to power mobile phones, laptops and electric vehicles—have summoned plenty of controversy during their relatively brief existence. Introduced commercially in 1991, by the mid 2000s they had become infamous for causing fires in laptop computers.

More recently, the plug-in hybrid electric Chevy Volt’s lithium-ion battery packs burst into flames following several National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) tests to measure the vehicle’s ability to protect occupants from injury in a side collision. The NHTSA investigated and concluded in January 2012 that Chevy Volts and other electric vehicles do not pose a greater risk of fire than gasoline-powered vehicles.

GS Yuasa says it may take months to investigate what caused the All Nippon incident, Bloomberg and the Associated Press reported Thursday. The key issue is whether the problem was caused by the battery itself or the electrical system as a whole.

Image of an All Nippon Airways Boeing 787-8 courtesy of hitachiota, via Wikimedia Commons

Larry Greenemeier About the Author: Larry Greenemeier is the associate editor of technology for Scientific American, covering a variety of tech-related topics, including biotech, computers, military tech, nanotech and robots. Follow on Twitter @lggreenemeier.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. jtdwyer 8:25 am 01/18/2013

    Considering that the batteries are relatively small, even though large for lithium-ion batteries, couldn’t they simply be quickly replaced with more reliable, if larger and heavier, older battery technology? It’s a shame to have such an impact for what seems to be a small technological benefit. It would not be feasible to replace lithium-ion batteries in electric cars or PCs with lead-acid batteries, but it would seem to this casual observer that a lithium-ion battery even the size of two ordinary car batteries could be replaced with a small battery room containing perhaps a few hundred pounds of lead-acid batteries, with little technical impact…

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  2. 2. june conway beeby 2:18 pm 01/18/2013

    Thanks to the FAA oversight. One has to question how this plane was ever allowed to carry passengers in the first place.

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  3. 3. Steve D 2:24 pm 01/18/2013

    While we’re at it, keep them grounded until their electronics are absolutely immune to interference from consumer electronics.

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  4. 4. Happy Hal 5:33 pm 01/18/2013

    As with the new fighter jets, the more one innovates, the longer the pre-delivery time, and the greater the pressure to deliver early, before all the bus are out. Just like Microsoft!

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  5. 5. vulvox 5:48 pm 01/18/2013

    what did they use on the older jets? They can possibly make room for older less power dense batteries to take their place.

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  6. 6. AtlantaTerry 6:11 pm 01/18/2013

    I wonder if GS Yuasa oursourced the battery construction to China where their typical lack of quality control was applied.

    A third party engineering firm needs to tear the battery packs apart and test them. Don’t let GS Yuasa do it.

    BTW, it is my understanding the problem with a lithium-ion battery fire is one can not extinguish it in the normal manner. The problem being that the battery when burned creates oxygen thereby feeding the fire. The burning battery has to be submerged in water. If this bit of trivia is true it would have made an interesting addition or sidebar to the story.

    Terry Thomas…
    the photographer
    Atlanta, Georgia USA

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  7. 7. Asteroid Miner 11:45 pm 01/18/2013

    Is the rudder still made of lithium? If so, I’m not riding on it. Didn’t anybody look up lithium in a Chem-Phys handbook? When you drop lithium into water, it fizzes’ just like sodium, only faster. The gas driven off is flammable hydrogen. We lost a dozen soldiers in helicopter fires because of lithium fuel tanks.

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  8. 8. jafrates 12:32 am 01/19/2013

    @Asteroid Miner: The rudder never was made of lithium, nor was it ever planned. I don’t know where you came up with that idea. Lithium is softer than talc and so could never be something structural like that.

    @AtlantaTerry: Certain kinds of lithium ion batteries burn like that. Submerging them in water does nothing to put it out.

    This story doesn’t really explain what’s happening. It appears that the fires are happening when the battery is recharging either because it’s charging too fast or it’s being overcharged. Once this kind of lithium ion battery reaches a certain temperature, it can ignite and trigger a self-oxidizing fire. Boeing will likely have to come up with a new coolant system for the battery, change the chemistry, or replace it with something else. I expect the first will happen as it’s the least structurally disruptive.

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  9. 9. jtdwyer 1:23 am 01/19/2013

    As ‘Vulox’ asked, “what did they use on the older jets?”

    The trade-off of safety and reliability for relatively insignificant weight and space savings with lithium ion batteries is unacceptable for an aircraft. If I was responsible for the correction I would certainly replace the inherently hot compact batteries.

    A battery cooling system would require power, even when on the ground. I’ve had a laptop whose case would heat up so much when powered off and unplugged that it would literally burn your fingers. Since the purpose of one of the batteries is to start an auxiliary engine/generator to provide power on the ground, battery cooling systems might require a capacity increase for that very auxiliary engine/generator system and the batteries as well – providing only compensation for the fundamental lithium ion technology heat issue, not correction.

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  10. 10. Hammerwielder 2:46 am 01/19/2013

    Lithium ion batteries are dangerous goods subject to strict international rules when carried on aircraft as cargo. A fire resulting from lithium ion batteries was responsible for the fatal crash of a UPS 747 in Dubai in 2010, among other earlier serious incidents. In the face of the obvious known dangers associated with lithium ion technology, Boeing, incomprehensibly, designed and deployed the 787 for passenger service using lithium ion batteries to perform critical roles in powering the aircraft’s systems. This decision will go down in aviation history as one of the dumbest of all time. The Nightmareliner, like the Cessna CJ4 Citation before it, will need to be redesigned and retrofitted with more conventional, intrinsically safer and heavier lead-acid or nicad batteries if Boeing is to have any chance of regaining the confidence of the flying public relative to this aircraft.

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  11. 11. jafrates 11:37 am 01/19/2013

    Oh, I don’t know about the dumbest design decision. Square windows on the de Havilland Comet?

    The UPS crash involved lithium metal batteries, not lithium-ion batteries. There’s an enormous difference in the chemistry. The FAA’s Safety Alert for Operators (SAFO) 10017 notes that Halon 1301, standard in cargo aircraft, is effective in fighting lithium-ion battery fires but not lithium metal battery fires.

    Back to the 787, it’s not just the weight that caused Boeing to choose this technology (though at 65 pounds each for lithium-ion, it was certainly a factor). Lead-acid can’t be recharged as quickly as lithium ion. Boeing could potentially have gone with a different chemistry. They chose lithium-cobalt oxide cathode as best-performing, but other options (with less performance) were available such as lithium-iron oxide. To handle the potential thermal issues, there are *four* controllers on each battery. It appears at first that this may not have been enough, but there have been no conclusions as yet regarding possible manufacturing flaws or other causes.

    Why is it so important to have fast recharge performance? Because the batteries act as emergency backups for the electrical systems on-board. The 787 uses a LOT of electricity. A fully-functional 787 draws 1.5 megawatts. In emergency mode, the power draw lessens considerably, but in the case of loss of power in both engines, it’s critical that instruments, actuators, and other gear have enough power to function. In the event of multiple battery failure, there’s a drop-down turbine that uses airflow to spin up, but it’s the absolute last resort.

    You see, the issue is more complex than is presented in some articles. Dig around and you’ll find a lot more information, including that there was far more testing than many people think.

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  12. 12. engineer238 1:10 am 01/20/2013

    @jafrates & Asteroid Miner
    There may be some confusion about the use of lithium in aircraft structures. Though lithium is not used as a structure material in its natural form, aluminum-lithium alloys are used for their weight and mechanical properties in the aerospace industry. I’m not sure if Boeing is currently using Al-Li alloys in their new aircraft, but it would not surprise me. If I recall correctly, however, Boeing has been favoring carbon-fiber over the traditional metal frames.

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  13. 13. jafrates 3:29 am 01/20/2013

    Most of the 787′s structure (80% by volume, 50% by weight) is carbon fiber. There’s a strong difference between something “made of lithium” as Asteroid Miner said and made of an alloy with lithium in it. It wasn’t a typo on his part as he talked of lithium’s reaction with water.

    Other aircraft have some carbon fiber, but even the new 747-8 and 777-300ER make minimal use of it.

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  14. 14. CharlieinNeedham 10:40 am 01/21/2013

    ^^^ Speaking of carbon fiber (and not to get totally off topic), whatever happened to the idea pushed by a Boeing “whistleblower” on 60 Minutes that the Boeing carbon fiber plane would shatter into a thousand pieces on impact in a crash?
    His contention was that an aluminum frame is much safer for a non-military plane (where flyer safer should be a much higher priority than light weight performance).
    He expressed his belief on 60 minutes that a carbon fiber frame on the Dreamliner would mean it would shatter in a heavy emergency landing, with passengers exposed to massively more flying debris. And in the case of a fire from leaked fuel about the plane, the lack of an intact shell would mean immediate immolation.
    I’ve not seen anything about this since the 60 Minute episode aired about 5 years ago.
    Anyone know if this concern was felt to be overblown, or legitimate?

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  15. 15. CharlieinNeedham 10:47 am 01/21/2013

    For those that are interested in the above contention, I found a source that reports it, with the following an excerpt:

    “A former Boeing engineer claims the 787 Dreamliner is unsafe, and that in the event of a crash its innovative composite material fuselage would “shatter too easily and burn with toxic fumes”, the Seattle Times reports.

    Vince Weldon was sacked in July 2006 from his post as senior aerospace engineer at Boeing’s Phantom Works research unit for “disputed reasons”. He argues that “without years of further research, Boeing shouldn’t build the Dreamliner and that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) shouldn’t certify the jet to fly”.

    Weldon’s allegations are detailed in a letter to the FAA, which claims:

    The brittleness of the plastic material from which the 787 fuselage is built would create a more severe impact shock to passengers than an aluminum plane, which absorbs impact in a crash by crumpling. A crash also could shatter the plastic fuselage, creating a hole that would allow smoke and toxic fumes to fill the passenger cabin.
    After such a crash landing, the composite plastic material burning in a jet-fuel fire would create “highly toxic smoke and tiny inhalable carbon slivers” that “would likely seriously incapacitate or kill passengers”.
    The recently conducted crashworthiness tests — in which Boeing dropped partial fuselage sections from a height of about 15 feet at a test site in Mesa, Ariz. — are inadequate and do not match the stringency of comparable tests conducted on a 737 fuselage section in 2000.
    The conductive metal mesh embedded in the 787′s fuselage surface to conduct away lightning is too light and vulnerable to hail damage, and is little better than a “Band-Aid.”

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  16. 16. vulvox 8:39 pm 01/22/2013

    There are lithium ion battery electrolytes that don’t explode and that resist flames. Maybe they will fit the bill.

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  17. 17. ErnestPayne 5:09 pm 01/24/2013

    Interesting article and more interesting comments

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  18. 18. Quinn the Eskimo 12:27 am 01/27/2013

    Didn’t we learn all this back in 2006 with self-incinerating lappys? Wasn’t someone at Boeing doing their homework?

    Jeeze guys, let’s buy from the lowest bidder in C H I N A.

    What could go wrong?

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