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Lithium-ion batteries like the ones that overheated on two Boeing Co. 787 Dreamliners can be made safe enough for even the most critical transportation uses, according to three experts who will speak at a forum today.
“The batteries are continuing to get better and safer,” Dan Doughty, of Battery Safety Consulting Inc. in Albuquerque, New Mexico, said in an interview. “As we learn and understand the failure modes, that will continue.”
The question is whether safeguards, such as encasing them in steel and building in protective circuitry, are too costly, Vince Visco, senior vice president of strategy and business development at Quallion LLC, said in an interview. Los Angeles- based Quallion makes batteries for use in space and medical devices. He and Doughty are set to speak today at a U.S. National Transportation Safety Board forum in Washington.
Boeing is proposing protections like those Visco described in a redesigned battery, including titanium vents to draw smoke and fumes outside if a fire starts, as a way to get its grounded planes airborne. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration hasn’t said when it will act on Boeing’s proposed fix.
The safety board, as part of an investigation into a 787 battery fire Jan. 7 in Boston, is holding today’s forum to hear from academic and industry officials on how to make cells safer. It will hold a separate hearing April 23-24 to examine the Dreamliner’s battery design and how it was certified by the FAA.
The plane, Boeing’s newest airliner, has been grounded since Jan. 16 following two incidents in which onboard lithium battery packs smoldered.
Rechargeable lithium cells now power devices ranging from Apple Inc.’s iPad to power tools and are increasingly being used in transportation equipment. While battery fires are rare, they have been linked to aviation accidents and blazes in plug-in electric cars.
When it catches fire, lithium burns violently, spewing flammable gas and molten metal. However, batteries much larger than those on the 787 have proven themselves in recent years in uses that include hybrid buses and in power grids, Yet-Ming Chiang, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor who also will speak at today’s forum, said in an interview.
“Any time you have a highly concentrated source of energy, you need to understand it and treat it with respect,” Chiang said. “But that’s true of any form of fuel that you use, whether it’s gasoline, jet fuel or batteries.”
“There is no reason to say that lithium-ion won’t have a place in high-consequence applications, such as passenger airplanes,” said Doughty, a former head of battery testing at Sandia National Laboratories.
The FAA has recorded 33 cases of batteries brought aboard commercial planes by passengers or as cargo catching fire since 2009. Of those cases, 26, or 79 percent, involved lithium-based batteries, according to the agency.
Since 2006, three cargo jets have been destroyed in fires where lithium batteries were present, according to the safety board. Those cells were being shipped and weren’t part of the aircraft. The United Nations’ International Civil Aviation Organization on Jan. 1 imposed new rules on air shipments of lithium batteries.
A General Motors Co. Chevrolet Volt automobile caught fire three weeks after a government crash test in 2011, spurring a congressional hearing. GM fortified the plug-in’s lithium-ion battery packs to help avoid damage from collisions.
Boeing got U.S. 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.
GS Yuasa Corp. of Kyoto, Japan, made the battery pack on the 787. The firm sells them to Thales SA, which then supplies them to Boeing.
The 787 is the first airliner designed with lithium-ion batteries as part of the electrical system. One starts an auxiliary generator and another powers equipment, such as the plane’s electric brakes, when engines aren’t running on the ground. A smaller lithium-ion pack also provides backup power for the cockpit displays, according to Boeing.
Boeing chose them for the 787, which uses more electricity than previous designs, because they are lighter, hold more energy and can be quickly recharged, Mike Sinnett, the 787 chief project engineer, said in a January briefing.
–Editors: Bernard Kohn, Ted Bunker.
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