Do Boeing’s 787 Battery Woes Hold Lessons for Other Vehicles?

By | April 16, 2013

U .S. regulators are discussing whether the batteries that burned on Boeing Co.’s 787 Dreamliner hold any lessons for other aircraft or vehicles.

George Nield, associate administrator for commercial space transportation at the Federal Aviation Administration, said a dialogue is taking place about whether the overheating of two lithium-ion batteries on the 787 could have broader implications.

“Everyone’s looking to see if there are any lessons to be learned from this,” Nield told Reuters during a conference hosted by the Space Foundation this week.

The discussion marks a shift for the agency. Two months after the Dreamliner was approved for service in 2011, a lithium-ion battery caught fire on a Cessna business jet, prompting the FAA to order that lithium-ion batteries be replaced with less hazardous cells on all of those jets within a week. But the agency concluded there were no broader lessons to be learned for the 787 or other aircraft.

Nield, who noted that the International Space Station is among the platforms that use the batteries, said the discussion is different now.

“There might not have been a lot (of dialogue) in the past, but I can assure you there will be going forward,” Nield said.


Lightweight and power-packed, lithium-ion batteries are used to power electric cars, laptops, tablets, cell phones, satellites. They are even used on the Lockheed Martin Corp. F-35 fighter jet. The number of cells manufactured globally has leapt to 4.4 billion in 2012 from 800 million in 2002.

But safety remains an issue. The battery industry still does not have a foolproof way to predict or prevent internal short circuits in the cells, according to experts who spoke about the issue this week at the National Transportation Safety Board forum.

The NTSB is investigating what caused one of the 787 batteries to overheat and catch fire in January. A second battery smoldered and emitted smoke during a flight in Japan, prompting the pilots to make an emergency landing and evacuate the plane.

When the FAA initially approved Boeing’s lithium-ion battery system in 2007, it lacked rules to govern their use on planes, and set “special conditions” for Boeing to follow to ensure they would be safe.

When the two batteries failed in January, the FAA’s process came under scrutiny and critics said the agency could have applied lessons from past battery incidents.

The NTSB has set April 23-24 for an investigative hearing on the Boeing battery that caught fire.

The FAA also has launched an extensive review of Boeing’s manufacturing, production and design process for the 787, aimed at addressing the batteries and other problems that have cropped up during the first year of service by the new high-tech plane.

Asked about the Cessna fire, the FAA told Reuters its investigation at the time “determined the fire was caused by mishandling and misuse of the battery while the aircraft was in a maintenance hangar. The battery size, composition and design were different than those of the 787 battery.”

Cessna declined to comment.

Since the 787 was grounded last Jan. 16, Boeing has tapped engineers from its airplane and space divisions as well as outside experts as part of a 200-member team that developed a package of measures aimed at preventing further battery problems aboard the 787. The FAA is now evaluating the revamped battery system to determine whether it is safe for the 787 to resume flights.

Ray Conner, who heads Boeing’s commercial aircraft division, told an investor conference last month that Boeing tapped the expertise of engineers from other divisions who were familiar with lithium-ion batteries to develop the new battery system.

In the Cessna case, the FAA required that lithium-ion batteries in the Cessna Citation Model 525C, be replaced with nickel-cadmium or lead-acid batteries, older technologies that are not as volatile. Airbus officials have said they think lithium-ion batteries can eventually be made safe, but that the company was shifting to nickel-cadmium for its forthcoming A350 jet, because it doesn’t want to risk a delay in bringing the plane to market.

Boeing has said it isn’t considering shifting away from lithium-ion batteries.

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