Dreamliner fire shows battery risk
BY ALAN LEVIN & SUSANNA RAY Bloomberg News
Friday, January 11, 2013
1/11/13 at 4:47 AM
Firefighters at Boston's Logan International Airport opened the hatch of a burning Boeing 787 Dreamliner on Monday to encounter a hazard from something almost ubiquitous in modern life: lithium-based batteries.
The power sources for devices ranging from the iPad to tools to plug-in cars hold so much energy and are so flammable that when they ignite, they can be difficult to extinguish as they spew flames and even molten metal, according to government tests.
Boeing Co. got federal regulators' permission to install lithium-ion batteries on the Dreamliner in 2007, three years after passenger airlines were barred from carrying non- rechargeable types as cargo. Officials investigating this week's fire will examine whether the 787 batteries met the government's conditions, said Michael Barr, an instructor at the University of Southern California's Aviation Safety and Security Program.
"We know that batteries burn," Barr said in an interview. "We know that lithium batteries have a higher propensity to burn. Is there a basic design issue?"
The review of the fire probably will also examine whether the 2007 decision provided adequate safety, Barr said.
Boeing installed multiple circuits to ensure that the plane's power system won't overcharge the batteries, which can cause them to heat up and burn, Mike Sinnett, the Boeing 787 chief project engineer, said in a briefing.
"We put a lot of system protections in place to ensure that failures of the battery don't put the airplane at risk," Sinnett said.
On the Boeing 787, a rechargeable battery used to start the auxiliary power unit, a small turbine engine that generates electricity on the ground, ignited, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. It took fire crews 40 minutes to extinguish the fire.
GS Yuasa Corp. of Kyoto, Japan, made the battery pack on the 787.
While fires in batteries are rare, they have been linked to aviation accidents, electric vehicle blazes and exploding smartphones.
The Federal Aviation Administration has logged 33 instances in which batteries have caught fire on commercial airplanes since 2009. Of those cases, 26, or 79 percent, involved lithium batteries, according to the agency.
Three cargo jets have been destroyed in fires since 2006 in which lithium batteries were present, according to the NTSB. The United Nations' International Civil Aviation Organization on Jan. 1 imposed new rules on air shipments of lithium batteries.
Lithium-ion batteries used to power electric cars also have been probed by U.S. safety regulators.
In 2011, a Chevrolet Volt caught fire three weeks after a government crash test, spurring a congressional hearing. General Motors Co. agreed to fortify the plug-in hybrid's battery packs so they wouldn't ignite if cracked in an accident.
Lithium-ion batteries are safe as long as they are manufactured and used according to regulatory standards, said George Kerchner, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Rechargeable Battery Association.
"Billions of lithium-ion cells and batteries are safely used in hundreds of consumer, military, medical and electric vehicle applications every year," Kerchner said.
Original Print Headline: Dreamliner fire shows lithium-ion battery risk
Lithium-ion battery cells fill a production line of the Eliiy Power Co. plant in Kawasaki City, Japan. Bloomberg file