News of previous battery events on 787 Dreamliners in the fleets of All Nippon Airways and Japan Airlines spread like wildfire earlier this week, even as Boeing tried to keep control of a growing public relations nightmare expressing an optimistic outlook during an earnings call on Wednesday.
ANA and JAL confirmed to reporters that they have had consistent problems with batteries used to provide power to their 787s. Ten batteries failed to charge properly according to an ANA spokeswoman, while JAL said it had replaced batteries on a few occasions.
National Transportation Safety Board spokeswoman Kelly Nantel said the investigators looking into the two 787 battery events, one on 7 January in Boston and the second on 16 January in Japan, would be “going through the list of prior battery problems and determining if there is anything relevant to the investigation”.
In 2005, Boeing selected a cobalt oxide formulation of lithium battery to use on the 787, still five years away from being delivered to airline customers. At that time this kind of energy source was used widely on personal electronic devices, cell phones and laptops. Before the year was over, the battery – referred to as a Sony battery because Sony held the patent – would be recalled by the millions as manufacturers like Dell, Nokia, iBook and Hewlett Packard worried that they would catch fire and explode. It was considered by many to be the largest recall in industrial history.
The problems weren’t confined to the ground. Between 2006 and 2010, the National Transportation Safety Board reported twenty-two battery related aviation events on airplanes, 14 of which caused a fire. In 2010, a fire onboard a UPS cargo flight caused the Boeing 747 to crash in Dubai killing the crew. Nevertheless, after obtaining a list of “special conditions” from the Federal Aviation Administration that would govern the use of lithim ion batteries, Boeing proceeded with its plans to use cobalt oxide even though newer less-volatile technology was being developed.
Boeing spokesman Marc Birtel did not reply to several emails this week requesting information about this process and asking whether the company ever reconsidered it’s of power choice in light of the recalls and in flight fires.
“They’ve already found it’s not working,” said John Goodenough, a professor at the University of Texas and the man who invented cobalt oxide batteries. “It’s safe 94% of the time but that’s not enough.”
Not all lithium ion batteries are the same. There are several chemical compositions; lithium iron magnesium phosphate powers some delivery trucks and motor boats, while lithium manganese oxide is used for hybrid cars. Cobalt oxide stands out because of all lithium ion batteries; it is the most effective – packing the most energy into the smallest space but as has been shown repeatedly, this formulation has inherent risks.
“To think they would put lithium cobalt into the newest airliner out there, it boggles my mind,” said Don Harmon, a battery manufacturer in Virginia, who is producing a lithium iron phosphate battery.
Only one other passenger carrying civil vehicle uses cobalt oxide lithium batteries, the Tesla Roadster electric car, which is no longer in production. In an email to Flightglobal’s Zach Rosenberg, the head of Tesla, Elon Musk, said the way Tesla configures its battery is different from Boeing’s design on the Dreamliner.
“Unfortunately, the pack architecture supplied to Boeing is inherently unsafe,” the article quotes Musk as writing. Musk’s campaign to share his knowledge about how to use an increasingly controversial power source is not surprising. Both Boeing and Musk’s other company, SpaceX are working on space vehicles whose designs at present rely on lithium ion batteries.