• Jan 25th 2013 at 5:00PM
  • 14

Boeing's 787 Dreamliner demonstrates that not all lithium-ion batteries are created equal

Kyle Thibaut
The Federal Aviation Administration has grounded its first passenger airliner since 1979. The new Boeing 787 Dreamliner has had multiple issues leading up to the directive, but the main problem involves the high-tech commercial jet's lithium-ion batteries.

On January 7, a battery overheated and started a fire on an empty 787 at Boston's Logan International Airport. On January 16, an All Nippon Airways Dreamliner had to make an emergency landing because there was purportedly smoke in one of the electrical compartments.

The batteries in question are used as part of backup systems to support major flight controls when the main power fails. But these systems, and their redundant protection systems, failed. That was more than enough to get attention from the feds.

A probe by the National Transportation Safety Board confirmed the aircraft's batteries were at fault, but the notice states uncertainty as to why the batteries are acting up. As of now, speculation surrounds contaminates in the cells and/or manufacturing defects.

But are the lithium-ion batteries used on Boeing's 787 really all that similar to those used in plug-in electric vehicles?

Electric cars have had their share of public battery missteps--most notably when the Chevy Volt and Fisker Karma extended-range electric vehicles were found to catch fire under certain circumstances, prompting investigations. Under high temperatures, lithium-ion batteries can ignite or explode. If one cell short-circuits and overheats, it's possible for the heat to spread and affect other cells.

But, before making a connection between Boeing's battery issues and passenger EVs, it's worth noting that the Dreamliner's lithium-ion batteries use different cathode materials than the batteries found on most electric cars. According to Green Car Reports, the cobalt oxide (CoO2) battery chemistry found on the Dreamliner "has the highest energy content, but it is also the most susceptible to overheating that can produce 'thermal events' (which is to say, fires)." The report goes on to note that the only other electric car to use cobalt oxide battery chemistry is the Tesla Roadster, which is no longer for sale.

Boeing's battery problem can be traced back to 2005, when Dreamliner engineering stages were still ongoing. At the time, only lithium-ion cells made of cobalt oxide (CoO2) were deemed air-worthy. Since then, the FAA has approved additional cathodes, including the safer lithium iron phosphate compound (LiFePO4). LiFePO4 batteries are being used by some EV manufacturers like Chinese automaker BYD, who claim their Fe batteries offer "excellent safety performance" because of the material.

Using cobalt oxide (CoO2) as a cathode material has begun to fall out of favor, as lithium iron phosphate, nickel, manganese and other metals have been found to be safer, although cannot offer the same capacity. In all types of battery design, safety is a top priority. Lithium-ion batteries contain safety devices to prevent overheating, but if contaminants enter during production, the safety systems fail.

That's why the planes have been grounded. Not only did the batteries overheat, their redundant safety systems didn't kick in.

TRANSLOGIC reached out to Boeing's head of Media Relations, Marc Birtel, and was told that, "[Boeing] has formed teams consisting of hundreds of engineering and technical experts who are working around the clock with the sole focus of resolving the issue and returning the 787 fleet to flight status."

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    • 1 Second Ago
      • 2 Years Ago
      Time to use the 787 to transport prisoners and that overspender Obama ($400,000 a year income too and his $2 billion security on office and private times), and these overpaid ($950,000.00 to $1 million dollars per year income each of the lazy Congresspersons makes off taxpayers, so doom them too.
      • 2 Years Ago
      The media has concealed the real danger of these batteries in an effort to support electric cars. The media has no credibility!
      • 2 Years Ago
      I'm waiting for my tesla to be delivered in May or June. I understand one of the maintenance requirements is the battery cooling system. I understand heat was one of the problems hope this solves the problem.
      • 2 Years Ago
      Crazy isn't it? One cannot ship an item "Air-freight" if it has a battery in it, not even a hearing-aid battery. Maybe Boeing should take heed.
      • 2 Years Ago
      My guess is that the power consumption on the 787 is much more significant than that of a cell phone or EV. There must have been a load factor that has been over-looked in the design of the 787's battery; perhaps the size is the main factor for the loads it is subjected to; obviously. However, it appears that EV batteries are either built with much larger resistance to stress load factors or the EV's don't spike or load the batteries as much as a massive 787 may in varying conditions. The problem begins can be mitigated by the use of larger batteries, but then there is another developing problem; both of cost and weight. And if this is the case, then the design of efficiency of power and weight distribution begins to lose out to inefficiency.
      • 2 Years Ago
      sounds like untested hi tech
      • 2 Years Ago
      Two incidents come to mind ,both a few years back. One was the batteries made by Toshiba causing laptops to burst into flame, these were sold to many other companies . And the reports of Chinese consumers being killed by exploding cell phones with faulty batteries .
      • 2 Years Ago
      I have been useing LoPo batteries for years in my hobby and can tell you from first hand experiance that if misshandled these batteries can be violantly explosive. I can also tell you that we run our batteries at the very limits of performance and if treated correctly the are safe. The technology of LiPo has come a long way over the years and as the story indicated new chemistries are makeing alternitives to LiPo. They still have a way to go before matching energy potential to wieght and you still cannot form them into the odd shapes that makes LiPo's so attractive to industry. Treat these batteries with care and you should never have a problem, abuse them and expect a fire.
      • 2 Years Ago
      I still think electricity/batteries will power cars of the future. Yes, there are a few problems now but they will be solved. In 20 years, we will all be driving EV autos.
      • 2 Years Ago
      For those who are wondering. Toyota uses NiMH batteries not Lithium. So do not try to equate the issues. Lithium Ion is a much higher performing battery and the technology for charge and discharge is very critical at this time with the research on Cathode technology still going on. Soon these different emitting technologies will be standardized and then we will get a standard of perfromance. Till then expect the unexpected. This is just another step in engineering, it will be cleaned up soon.
      • 2 Years Ago
      .....How long have Toyota Prius's been in use with none of the problems the Dreamliner is having ? Methinks that should answer the question.
      • 2 Years Ago
      I read an interesting interview with Tesla founder Elon Musk on the Boeing battery issue. He felt that the basic design, using large batteries, made it susceptible to this type of failure. As this article points out, if a contaminant gets in the system then there is a cascade failure. I am sure Boeing is tearing a new one into their battery supplier regarding quality control. Maybe the other jets are all fine and it was just this an anomaly. But they need to have the battery safety perfected before they start operations again.
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