Boeing Battery Quick Fix May Be Elusive

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battery photoThe crisis that has enveloped Boeing over the grounded Dreamliner, at a cost of billions of dollars in losses in addition to what has already been “invested” in it  -- voluntarily by its owner/investors and coercively from taxpayers – exemplifies perhaps more than any other redistributionist corporatism scheme why government intervention is more headache than help.

Pass the industrial-strength Excedrin.

Of immediate concern to the Chicago-based jet-manufacturer is the lithium-ion battery that powers so many of the 787’s critical functions. Two instances of “thermal runaway” on Dreamliners’ owned by Japan-based airlines caused that country, and the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, to suspend their use pending investigations. Other flaws since July such as cracked engines, damaged cockpit windows, and fuel leaks have compounded concerns.

But the scare factor surrounding the battery is the biggest deal.

“This is an unprecedented event," said Deborah Hersman, chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board. “We do not expect to see fire events on board aircrafts. This is a very serious safety concern.”

Well, it’s sort of unprecedented. The Seattle Times reported on Thursday that a 787 battery explosion caused a “devastating lab fire” in Arizona in 2006, burning a 10,000-square-foot facility to the ground. According to research by reporter Dominic Gates, the blaze was ignited during testing by the manufacturer of Boeing’s charging control systems, Securaplane Technologies of Tucson. While Boeing claimed the charging test was improperly set up, various investigative authorities offered several potential explanations, and the official cause was not determined.

“The ruinous fire resisted the initial efforts of two employees with fire extinguishers and escalated,” Gates reported, “despite the dispatch of a fleet of fire trucks…. It reached temperatures of about 1,200 degrees and resulted in losses of millions of dollars.”

A basic explanation of lithium ion batteries and their composition helps to understand why experts use the term “runaway.” During the FAA certification the Air Line Pilots Association raised their concerns about the potential for fires from the batteries, and referenced a 2006 FAA report that only a small amount of heat can cause electrolytes “to forcefully vent ... through the relief ports near the positive terminal…. The electrolyte is highly flammable and easily ignites when exposed to an open flame or hot surface.”

Worse, the means to suppress such fires are complex, as evidenced in the Securaplane incident. In an interview with the Times, Boeing’s chief 787 project engineer Mike Sinnett acknowledged the challenges with the technology.

“The electrolyte can catch on fire and that can self-sustain,” he told reporter Gates. “Something like that is very difficult to put out. Because the electrolyte contains an oxidizer, fire suppressants just won’t work…. You have to assume it’s not going to go out. You have to assume that it’s going to go and that it’s going to expend all of its energy.”

That concept is illustrated in an online video of a laptop computer whose battery, for demonstration purposes, was forced into a “runaway” condition. As a result a cell reacts, and a chain effect leads the instability to spread to other cells as the heat intensifies. Similar to the explanation in the FAA report cited by the ALPA, the electrolytes “forcefully vent” by blowing a hole in the palm rest of the laptop, followed by subsequent blasts and bursts of flames.

Now imagine that lithium ion technology in units hundreds of times that size. A helpful Seattle Times graphic shows the two enormous cell packs located both fore and aft the 787, underneath the passenger deck. The cells are compartmentally designed so as to limit the “runaway” spread to other cells, and any needed venting in case of failure is directed outside the plane.

That design did not prevent the a fire aboard an empty Japan Airlines Dreamliner in Boston, or a burning smell on an All Nippon Airways 787 that spurred an emergency landing in Japan. Preliminary investigations by the NTSB ruled out overcharging as a cause, and getting the Dreamliner back in the air may not come soon, according to a CNN report.

“It does not sound like a quick resolution is in store for Boeing,” said Mary Schiavo, a former U.S. Transportation Department inspector general.

On Thursday NTSB showed the remains of the charred electronic systems from the Boston incident, explaining that the battery “spewed molten electrolytes.”

“These events should not happen as far as design of the aircraft,” said Hersman, the NTSB chairwoman. “There are multiple systems to protect against a battery event like this. Those systems did not work as intended, we need to understand why.”

That fires “should not happen” may have been lost on the FAA, which according to Reuters granted special approval in 2007 to Boeing for use of lithium-ions. According to the news agency’s review of government documents and interviews with battery experts, it was good enough for the FAA that the 787 featured a “contain-and-vent system” that “was sufficient to control the build-up of explosive or toxic gases, except in situations considered ‘extremely remote.’” That raises questions about how likely the FAA believed the potential for dangerous “thermal runaway” was, and whether it felt that safety systems for potential fires were enough for it to grant approval, rather than the prevention of fires in the first place. It certainly misaligns with the Air Line Pilots Association opinion that “a fire from these devices, in any situation, is unacceptable.” The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee plans a hearing to investigate the FAA’s certification of the Dreamliner.

The bottom line is Boeing, its customers, and its regulators have an embarrassing dilemma on their hands that fell short of aforethought, despite its 10-plus years of design, development and construction. The problems with lithium ions of all sizes are well known, and experience shows that the issue doesn’t have to be the battery itself. It could be in the charging, or in the external temperatures, or in the systems it interacts with, or in a minor flaw, or some kind of chemical imbalance – or something else.

And now a Massachusetts Institute of Technology battery expert is recommending (via Forbes) that Boeing dump lithium ion in favor of safer, but heavier, nickel metal-hydride batteries. If the company determines that such a drastic change is necessary for the future of the Dreamliner, then certification of the updated plane could take until 2014. Meanwhile Boeing’s warranty costs to its customers could be in the range of $550 million due to the grounded 787s, according to Wall Street analyst Howard Rubel of Jefferies Group.

The “green” Dreamliner was supposed to be about big savings via fuel efficiency, new technologies and construction materials, all which were supposed to be made to magically appear thanks to billions of dollars in government incentives, primarily to fight the cause of global warming. Talk about unintended consequences.

Paul Chesser is an associate fellow for the National Legal and Policy Center and publishes CarolinaPlottHound.com, an aggregator of North Carolina news.