Dreamliner Flies, But Doubts Persist About Boeing's Batteries

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battery photoNow that Boeing has placed most of its 787s back into service, including those in United Airlines’ fleet, executives with both corporations are putting a happy face on the expensive hardship that was caused by the four-month grounding of the planes due to fire hazard risks.

United reinstated the so-called Dreamliners on May 20, when United CEO Jeff Smisek and Boeing CEO Jim McNerney hopped a flight from Houston to Chicago to show the troubles with the plane’s lithium ion batteries were behind them.

"I’ll tell you, Jim,” said Smisek, as recounted by the Associated Press, “it was a fairly expensive piece of sculpture to have on the ground, so we’re really delighted to have it up and flying.”

That’s not to say the Dreamliners are fixed. As NLPC reported last month, Boeing’s engineers don’t know what caused the fires in the first place, thus they can’t be sure they are repaired. Boeing’s top engineer Michael Sinnett said a reconfiguration of the enormous batteries is designed to prevent fires. Even if a blaze erupts, a casing around the battery will protect passengers.

“Even if we never know the root cause,” Sinnett told reporters in Tokyo, “the enclosure keeps the airplane safe, it eliminates the possibility of fire, it keeps heat out of the airplane, it keeps smoke out of the airplane, and it ensures that no matter what happens to the battery, regardless of root cause, the airplane is safe.

“In some ways it almost doesn’t matter what the root cause was.” 

Besides United (the only U.S. carrier with 787s in its fleet – six of them), airlines in India, Ethiopia and Qatar have resumed flights with the “green” plane that is equipped with the new battery technology that tends to overheat and combust. But not everyone is convinced that Boeing has sufficiently addressed the problems that caused a fire aboard an empty Japan Air Lines Dreamliner in Boston, or produced a burning smell on an All Nippon Airways 787 that spurred an emergency landing in Japan. Understandably it’s the Air Lines Pilots Association of Japan, which held a press conference on Monday, that has publicly demanded a better response from Boeing than “we have it contained” and “it doesn’t matter” what caused the fires.

“Frankly, we do not have enough information that enables us to declare whether we are for or against the resumption” of 787 flights, said Hiroaki Tateno, president of the association and a captain for Japan Air Lines.

According to a report in The Japan Times, the association is concerned that they have been provided no detailed information about how Boeing resolved the issues, nor have they been told what the investigation into the problem revealed. The pilots’ group says Boeing is now downplaying the importance of the batteries to the 787’s function. The association is “concerned about whether there will really be no adverse impact on other systems of the airplane if the battery goes wrong,” said the technical adviser to the pilots’ group.

All Nippon restarted its Dreamliner flights on Sunday, despite the pilots’ concerns. Besides the mystery that surrounds the investigation and “fix,” battery experts interviewed by Barron’s late last month expressed skepticism about the solution that Boeing has implemented for the Dreamliner.

“I’m shocked that Boeing was willing to stake its reputation on these batteries. Even with the modifications, the individual cells of the battery are crammed too closely together and feature an internal chemistry that’s far too volatile,” said Elton Cairns, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory professor and battery technology expert.

“Using these batteries in planes makes no sense, with all the lives potentially at stake. These batteries are unpredictable and prone to thermal runaway and fires,” said Michel Armand, a professor of chemistry at the University of Picardie in France.

Another scientist, physicist Lewis Larsen of Chicago-based Lattice Energy, has studied the National Transportation Safety Board’s investigative data on the Japan Air Lines incident at Logan Airport in Boston, even creating a PowerPoint presentation of his analysis. More technical explanations can be reviewed at the link and also in the Barron’s article, but the essence of Larsen’s review is that debris from the “thermal runaway” event included “perfect nanoscale steel spheres.” Larsen explained that the presence of those spheres are evidence that stainless steel “hotspots” in the battery casing, which were exposed to the internal shorts that created arc discharges, reached temperatures far higher than Boeing engineers likely contemplated. 

“These local areas got all the way up to the boiling point of stainless (steel) (> 3,000 degrees Centigrade),” Larsen wrote, “were turned into a gaseous vapor (expanding in volume by >50,000 x in the process of vaporizing); solid steel then re-condensed from hot metallic vapor in the form of perfect nanoscale steel spheres as portions of the super-hot metallic Fe-alloy vapor quench-cooled….”

He gets even more technical, but the upshot is that Larsen says the extreme heat was not containable, and it could happen again, despite what Boeing says about its solution to the problem. 

“The brutal incontestable facts are that Boeing has publicly admitted that it has no clue what caused the thermal runaways in the first place,” Larsen wrote in an email exchange with NLPC. “…Some small portions of the Logan battery conflagration got as hot as thousands of degrees while it was incinerating itself, which is a much higher peak temperature than Boeing has been willing to concede to outsiders.

“Worse yet, it is also abundantly obvious from the NTSB’s battery post-mortem investigation that whatever happened inside the dying GS Yuasa (the Japanese manufacturer) battery was more than hot enough to melt stainless steel with ease.”

Perhaps the most damning fact about Boeing’s “fix?” The containment box it created to protect the Dreamliner and its passengers is made out of…stainless steel.

Larsen isn’t some fringe scientist with a crazy theory. No one has publicly disputed his conclusions, and many authorities on battery technology have agreed with him. He explained that most chemists who work on batteries don’t usually spend any time studying the “amazing properties” of electric arcs (or arc discharges – lightning is an example of an electric arc).

As the Barron’s article pointed out, Boeing’s main competitor, France-based EADS, which makes Airbus models, decided that continuing with lithium ion batteries in its A350 line was too risky and replaced them with more traditional nickel-cadmium batteries. The business publication also reminded readers of two incidents in recent years in which 747 cargo planes carrying pallets of lithium-ion batteries crashed, killing the crews of both. Barron’s reported that the U.S. government forbids the transport of lithium-ion cargo on passenger planes flying over the country. So there is practical, as well as technical, confirmation of what Larsen is preaching.

As NLPC reported in recent months, Boeing keeps making decisions that don’t inspire confidence. The company stubbornly bulled ahead with lithium ion batteries that power far more functions on a plane than batteries ever had in the past, all in the name of making the Dreamliner lightweight and “green.” Ten-plus years of extensive research and testing did not prevent the flame-ups on the Japanese airlines and other similar incidents. And Boeing’s focus on lobbying for favorable government treatment, contracts and incentives appeared to supersede its responsibility to produce airplane technology that actually works and is safe.

The attitude that fires can be “contained” and that “it doesn’t matter” what caused the previous ones smacks of arrogance. Clearly there are plenty of smart people who are still skeptical. Since regulators have green-lighted the Dreamliner, all we can hope is that Boeing’s pride doesn’t cost any lives.

NOTE: The original version of this article had Mr. Larsen's name misspelled -- apologies to him -- and GS Yuasa is a Japanese company, not Korean.

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