Journalist, Cherry Park

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Cherry Park is an experienced freelance journalist and reporter who specializes in features, news, and news analysis, in print and online. She has written extensively in the areas of health and safety, fire safety, employment, HR, recruitment, rewards, pay and benefits, market research, environment, and metallurgy, and she also conducts research.
March 11, 2013

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Dreamliner Lithium Battery Fire Cause Still Unknown

An interim report shows that US safety regulators have not uncovered the reason yet for the Boston lithium-ion battery fire that has led to the grounding of all 50 Boeing 787 Dreamliners.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) report, released last week together with related documentation, includes more than 500 pages of laboratory analyses, interviews, and other data.

Though it gives a detailed description of the Jan. 7 battery fire, in which one firefighter was injured, the report does not explain it.

In that incident, cleaning staff in the cabin of a Japan Airlines Boeing 787 parked at Boston’s Logan International Airport found smoke coming from the auxiliary power unit battery case.

A second battery fire forced the evacuation of an All Nippon Airways flight at Takamatsu Airport in Japan nine days later. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) then ordered airlines to ground their fleets of Boeing 787s until the plane’s onboard batteries are proven safe.

Thick smoke
The report documents:

  • How maintenance personnel discovered the Boston fire and how firefighters responded to it
  • Findings from the examination of the battery and related components
  • Initial reports on the flight recorder data
  • The 787 electrical power system certification plan
  • Ongoing and planned investigative activities

According to the BBC, the incident was more serious than previously thought. Fire crews needed an hour and 40 minutes to extinguish the fire; the smoke was so thick they could not see the battery.

A fire captain said in the report that the battery was hissing loudly, and liquid was flowing down the sides of the battery case. Another firefighter said he heard a popping sound, and smoke began pouring out of the aft bay. The fire captain’s neck was burned when the battery exploded.

The report offers no conclusions or recommendations, and the NTSB’s investigation continues. Chairman Deborah Hersman said in a press release that the NTSB will hold a forum to explore lithium battery technology, as well as a public hearing on the design and certification of the 787 battery system. Both the forum and the hearing will be held in April and will be webcast live and open to the public.

Boeing losing $200 million a month
Meanwhile, Boeing is hoping the FAA will soon accept the proposals it sent in February to address the risk of fire, so that it can get its Dreamliners tested and flying again. The proposed changes include putting batteries inside fireproof metal cases and widening the gaps between battery cells to prevent overheating.

The company is reportedly losing $200 million a month in delivery payments while spending $1 billion a month to keep its production running.

The Dreamliner fleet is scattered at 17 airports worldwide, waiting for the green light. A decision from the FAA is expected in the next few days.

Airbus said last month that it will not use lithium batteries in its A350 planes because of the problems that have grounded Boeing’s planes. It will use traditional nickel-cadmium batteries, even though its test flights are still using lithium batteries.

Lithium batteries overheat faster
Lithium-based batteries have a higher propensity to heat up and ignite than other types of batteries if they short-circuit or are overcharged. They are the main type of rechargeable battery used in many electronic devices, including laptops, iPads, notebooks, smartphones, and electric cars.

Japanese regulators are investigating the lithium battery fire at Takamatsu Airport. Let us hope they will be able to come up with a cause sooner, rather than later.

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safeNsane
safeNsane
March 12, 2013 10:01 am

I wonder if the reason for these fires will ever be released.  We had a rash of battery fires in laptops and mobile phones a few years ago, I wonder if the batteries in the Dreamliner are older model batteries with the same flaws that caused issues in the past.  It wouldn’t surprise me since the design phase for aircraft are so long that it could easily span that time frame.

ITs_Hazel
ITs_Hazel
March 13, 2013 2:27 am
Reply to  safeNsane

$200 million a month is no laughing matter. I would think they would put more effort into the matter to figure out the cause of the fires. I also wonder if they will ever reveal the causes to the public. 

safeNsane
safeNsane
March 13, 2013 9:59 am
Reply to  ITs_Hazel

I can imagine that the whole truth would cause them a whole new set of image problems.
If you think about it something as simple as a known flaw in a battery would look really bad and customer response would be worse than staying silent.

wildriver
wildriver
March 13, 2013 10:07 pm

Lithium batteries have had issues in laptops where they get too hot.  An alternative should be sought with high priority.

batye
batye
April 3, 2013 3:53 am
Reply to  wildriver

Lithium batteries is relativly new  fresh technology and a lot of the factors still unknown… so to say… I would think it would make sense to have more testing done on the Lithium batteries by safety standards org. With help from scientists community…

batye
batye
April 3, 2013 3:56 am
Reply to  ITs_Hazel

good question/point as a lot of the time corporations try to push untested products to the market… hoping for the best while hiding under trade mark secrets from the public… set of problems/safety… as just to meet dead line…

wildriver
wildriver
April 3, 2013 11:20 am
Reply to  batye

Yes, unfortunately that is the reality.  Companies want to beat everyone else to the market even if they hvae to shortcut safety checks.  In the end they end up on the losing side if the product has to be recalled, or wosre, is rejected in the market.

Sheh
Sheh
April 9, 2013 11:55 am
Reply to  wildriver

I think its very important to find the right cause and address it right away. Till the time things are not clear passangers would not be able to restore the confidence on the safety of aircraft. People are very particular about such things when they opt for travelling through certain airliners. This inordinate delay in finding the cause of battery fire may put the future of Dreamliner into jeopardy.