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Grounded

Lithium batteries central to Boeing’s 787 woes
Published: 1/18/13 @ 12:00


Combined dispatches

SEATTLE

The prospect of flying in a so-called plastic airplane already was unnerving for some.

Now there’s the added concern of Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner using the same kind of batteries that used to overheat and ignite laptops made by Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Apple and others. Battery mishaps led to the plane’s grounding this week by U.S. and European regulators.

Boeing plans to keep building its flagship jetliner while engineers try to solve the battery problems that have grounded most of the 787 fleet.

It’s not clear how long the investigation — or the fix — will take. But it won’t be cheap for Boeing or for the airlines that had sought the prestige of flying the world’s most sophisticated passenger plane — a marvel of aviation technology that right now can’t even leave the tarmac, let alone cross continents and oceans.

Boeing’s newest jet was grounded worldwide Thursday after one suffered a battery fire and another had to make an emergency landing because pilots smelled something burning. Airlines and regulators canceled all Dreamliner flights.

Lithium-ion batteries are state of the art, producing the most energy in the lightest package at an acceptable price.

But they have had problems and continue to challenge engineers to manage the temperature generated in their chemical reactions, particularly as larger versions are produced for vehicles and now airplanes.

“It’s clear that there are some issues associated with thermal management,” said Donald Sadoway, a battery expert and the John F. Elliott Professor of Materials Chemistry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Since Sony began manufacturing them in 1990, lithium-ion batteries have led to a revolution in consumer electronics. They allow companies to build lightweight phones, cameras, power tools and other gadgets that run a day or more on a single charge.

In a phone, the batteries are thin and the heat is dissipated by the front and back of the case, which act like cooling fins, said Sadoway.

It’s a different story when you’re talking about batteries that are nearly twice the size of a car battery, like those used in the 787.

Tesla roadsters addressed the issue by using thousands of small, finger-sized batteries, clustered together. Now larger batteries are being used in cars such as Toyota’s plug-in Prius.

Boeing is the first company to use lithium-ion technology for the main batteries in a commercial airplane. The supplier of those recently also won a contract to upgrade the international space station to lithium-ion batteries.

Safety remains a concern, though, especially if manufacturers try to cut costs.

Sony learned this the hard way in 2006. Errant metal flakes inside some laptop batteries it produced caused them to short-circuit, leading to sudden and sometimes spectacular fires.