Boeing gambles on risky Dreamliner batteries

The lithium-ion power supplies that are causing headaches for the new 787 jet have a history of overheating in cellphones, laptops and other electronic devices.

By Bruce Kennedy Jan 18, 2013 9:17AM

Credit: Courtesy of the NTSB
Caption: NTSB photos of the burned auxiliary power unit battery from a JAL Boeing 787 that caught fire on Jan. 7 at Boston's Logan International AirportThe lithium-ion batteries that are causing major troubles for the new Boeing (BA) 787 Dreamliner have been in use commercially for over two decades. 

Lightweight, rechargeable and very efficient, they power our cellphones, cameras, laptop computers and many other electronic devices. Larger versions of the batteries are helping to power some hybrid cars. And Boeing, according to the Seattle Times, is the first company "to use lithium-ion technology for the main batteries in a commercial airplane."

But researchers, manufacturers and consumers are all aware that lithium-ion batteries are far from perfect and can be hazardous.

The image at left shows what remains of the lithium-ion battery, part of an auxiliary power unit on a Boeing 787, that burned last week while on the tarmac at Boston's Logan International Airport.

Here are some other, recent examples of lithium-ion battery mishaps:

Sanyo, now a subsidiary of Panasonic (PCRFF), recalled 1.3 million cellphone batteries in 2006 on concerns those batteries could overheat or catch fire.

In 2007, Nokia (NOK) offered to replace 46 million mobile phone batteries manufactured by another company due to overheating risks.

And in 2011, Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) recalled more than 162,000 lithium-ion batteries for some of its laptop computers, over concerns they posed "fire and burn hazards to consumers."

Lithium-ion batteries have also been making sectors of the aviation industry very nervous for years now.

Germany’s Spiegel Online says there have been numerous incidents of laptops and cell phones burning during flights. And since 1991, according to the website, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration "has listed a whopping 132 such cases with this kind of battery, some of which set entire cargo compartments [of airplanes] on fire."

For its part, the FAA no longer allows lithium-ion batteries to be transported as cargo on passenger aircraft.

In fact, air carriers like United (UAL) are following Department of Transportation guidelines and advising passengers to not pack loose lithium batteries in checked luggage -- that is, batteries that aren’t already installed in electronic devices -- or to bring spare lithium-ion batteries in carry-ons.

So are lithium-ion batteries ready for prime time when it comes to the unforgiving world of aviation and commercial aircraft?

Jonathan Posner, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Washington, tells the Seattle Times that while research on lithium-ion batteries continues, the technology is a "logical choice" for the 787.

"I don’t think Boeing would have used it if it wasn’t mature," he said. For his part, Posner believes the Dreamliner’s woes might come from "an engineering issue that just has to be resolved. But I would be surprised if they don’t continue to use lithium-ion batteries in the 787."

But experts in the field of advanced battery technology say the use of liquid electrolytes in the current lithium-ion batteries remains a safety issue to be resolved. 

Derek Johnson, director of engineering and technology development at Prieto Battery in Fort Collins, Colo., says the development of a safer, solid-state and commercially viable version of the lithium-ion battery is "still in its infancy" -- and that it may take several years before a prototype solid-state battery is available.

More on Money Now

Jan 18, 2013 1:44PM
I can't ship a box of Li Ion cells air because they will not allow them in the hold of a plane, *BUT* Boeing can build one into the hold of the same plane???
Reduce the capacity of the plane by a couple of hundred pounds and put in some good old SLA spiral cell batteries.  No leaks, no fires.  In the rush to embrace new technologies companies don't use common sense.  A bank of Optima Yellow tops would be a much better choice!

Jan 18, 2013 12:52PM


  The Lithium Ion Battery failure could have been a result of vibraton.  In every compionent. Airforce component, there is a series of qualification tests that are very severe.  Especially Vibration.  Vibration would accelerate the chemical activity of the acid liquid.   Question,  were the military qualification tests performed on the LIquid Ion Batteries for aircraft use? 


         Davc Wofsey



Jan 18, 2013 12:47PM

Hold on people, we all should be aware that everyone who purchase light fictures from home depot, lowes,ace hardware,

etc. are putting your's and your families live's in danger. The crap china is putting out is completly unsafe. The safety

standards which this country had for everything made in the usa no longer is properly enforced. and these i have phiscally witnessed by fact of repairing and replacing these devices.

Jan 18, 2013 12:35PM
The issue here is not so much the battery as it is the management adopting the irresponsible policy of engineering in real time rather than working through a traditional research first, build second strategy.
Jan 18, 2013 12:11PM
Burning batteries and  such is  not the issue here. Nor are  any other  saftey and  quality  issues with  Boings   products. The  whole issue is will the planes burning  , and the  scores of other  saftey  and  quality issues with boings  planes. The  Only issue of  concern is will  this  affect  Boings cost  of labor. getting the  cheapest  labor costs  is the  PRIME, and overiding  concern in  any  of  Boings airplane designs and  construction. After all, who  doesnt  want to  go to 30000 feet  on the plane  bulit  by the  cheapest  labor? In the  60 and  70's, the  saying was "if its  not a  boeing, I'm not  going", in the  80's  and  on, its" hey' Airbus  builds a  pretty good  plane"Go Boing, cheapest built  planes in the  air.
Jan 18, 2013 11:55AM
Anyone that flies a 787 with lithium-ion batteries in use for the planes electrical, should see a pyschiatrist.  They obviously have a death wish or unrealistic optimism.  If your a thousand miles from land over the ocean when these batteries explode, your going to be swimming with the fish.
Jan 18, 2013 11:51AM
It's obvious Lithium-Ion is not ready for planes and probably not for cars either.  Until they devise a way for the battery to shut itself down when it overheats, lithium ion should be restricted to nothing bigger than laptops.
Jan 18, 2013 11:50AM
The potential fire issues with lithium-ion batteries are well known, and have been since this type of battery first came out.  They have the advantage of being much lighter and smaller that other types of batteries, but until they figure out how to keep them from bursting into flames, it would probably be smarter not to put them in airplanes.  It's not like you can just pull over and stop if you have a problem with an airplane.
Jan 18, 2013 11:45AM
Might not be the battery itself, but how they were integrated into the overall design.  Maybe asking too few batteries to do too much....
Jan 18, 2013 11:30AM

They took a big risk and are getting burned.


They better have gutsy management to come out with right solution including throwing away lithium.

Wrong move and it can hurt big time.

Jan 18, 2013 10:20AM
But will Boeing still use lithium-ion batteries when no one boards their jets? Overheating issues in a cell phone or laptop is one thing, but a much bigger battery for airliner use? I smell fire.
Jan 18, 2013 10:17AM
Interesting how ALL the problems center around Japan.
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