The prospect of flying in a so-called plastic airplane was already unnerving for some.
Now there’s the added concern of Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner using the same kind of batteries that used to overheat and ignite laptops made by Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Apple and others. Battery mishaps led to the plane’s grounding this week by U.S. and European regulators.
Lithium-ion batteries are state of the art, producing the most energy in the lightest package at an acceptable price.
But they have had problems and continue to challenge engineers to manage the temperature generated in their chemical reactions, particularly as larger versions are produced for vehicles and now airplanes.
“It’s clear that there are some issues associated with thermal management,” said Donald Sadoway, a battery expert and the John F. Elliott Professor of Materials Chemistry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Since Sony began manufacturing them in 1990, lithium-ion batteries have led to a revolution in consumer electronics. They allow companies to build lightweight phones, cameras, power tools and other gadgets that run a day or more on a single charge.
In a phone, the batteries are thin and the heat is dissipated by the front and back of the case, which act like cooling fins, said Sadoway. It’s a different story when you’re talking about batteries that are nearly twice the size of a car battery, like those used in the 787. Tesla roadsters addressed the issue by using thousands of small, finger-sized batteries, clustered together. Now larger batteries are being used in cars such as Toyota’s plug-in Prius. Boeing is the first company to use lithium-ion technology for the main batteries in a commercial airplane. The supplier of those recently also won a contract to upgrade the international space station to lithium-ion batteries.
Safety remains a concern, though, especially if manufacturers try to cut costs.
Sony learned this the hard way in 2006. Errant metal flakes inside some laptop batteries it produced caused them to short-circuit, leading to sudden and sometimes spectacular fires. This resulted in recalls of more than 7 million batteries around the world, affecting major computer companies using Sony batteries.
“That’s a concern this industry has: You’re building a very energetic device; you’d better do it well or you’re going to have problems,” said Vince Battaglia, a specialist in battery design at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California.
Boeing said 787s will keep rolling off the assembly line while it works to get the planes grounded by regulators back flying again.
Boeing’s newest, flashiest jet was grounded worldwide on Thursday after one plane suffered a battery fire and another had an emergency landing because pilots detected a burning smell. The two incidents prompted airlines and regulators around the world to ground the planes until a fix for the battery problem is found that satisfies the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration.
It’s not clear how long the investigation – or the fix – will take, but it won’t be cheap for Boeing. Meanwhile, airlines that had sought the prestige of flying the world’s most sophisticated plane are instead stuck with one they can’t use.
Poland’s airline LOT said Thursday it may seek compensation from Boeing Co. for the grounding of its two 787 Dreamliner planes. The airline suffered the highest-profile embarrassment of any of Boeing’s customers on Wednesday night, when it was showing off new service between Warsaw and Chicago. The plane’s captain learned of the FAA grounding order while the flight was on its way from Warsaw to Chicago. The airline had to cancel the return trip – and a ceremony at O’Hare that was to include airline officials and Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Passengers who were eager to ride the airline’s first flight back to Warsaw ended up looking for a hotel room instead.
Boeing currently builds five 787s every month. It hasn’t delivered any since Jan. 3, before the first fire. Boeing Co. spokeswoman Lori Gunter said no deliveries were scheduled during that time. She declined to talk about planned deliveries.
All Nippon Airways said its 18th 787 is due at the end of this month, but it won’t take delivery until the 787 flights resume.Joshua Freed of The Associated Press contributed to this report.