I’ve been pretty quiet about the 787 as airplanes continue to sit on the ground, collecting dust, waiting for a fix to that nasty “battery catching on fire” problem. It’s primarily because I didn’t have much to add to the discussion. But now that we have a fix, I thought I’d put a post together.
As we all know by now, the Boeing 787 has been more Nightmareliner than Dreamliner these last few weeks. For over two months, the 787 has been grounded because of problems with batteries.
The issue at hand is not necessarily a huge surprise. Historically, airplanes have used batteries to power a variety of systems, but they’ve used older technology batteries. In the 787, Boeing decided to get fancy and use lithium ion batteries because it was relying on batteries to power much more than in previous airplanes. And lithium ion sounded like the best answer.
There’s a good news/bad news situation with those batteries. First, they are awesome at providing power. Boeing chose them because they can pack a ton of power into a small space, and space is at a premium on airplanes. This is particularly important on the 787 where more battery is needed in general.
The bad news? They like to catch on fire. Seriously, they’re not the most stable things around, and that’s why there are even restrictions on bringing spare batteries in your luggage. (You can’t.)
Think this isn’t a big deal? It is. It’s suspected that a UPS 747 was brought down by a lithium ion battery fire, though that hasn’t been made official. But there have been other accidents as well and it’s a huge concern.
Right now, you might be thinking Boeing is insane for trying to put lithium ion batteries on the 787, but that’s not really the case. Boeing knows the dangers involved in using those batteries, and it prepared a system that it thought would be adequate to mitigate the risk to a level where it wouldn’t be an issue. Apparently the government agreed when it signed off on the aircraft. If there’s one thing the government needs to do well, it’s regulate safety issues. Oops.
That didn’t work out so well. We know that there have been multiple battery-related fires on the 787 and it was so concerning that the airplane was grounded worldwide until a fix could be put out. Blame certainly lies both on Boeing, on its suppliers, and on regulatory bodies, but that doesn’t matter. We just needed a fix. In particular, Japanese airlines ANA an JAL really needed a fix since they had taken delivery of so many of the early airplanes.
Now, it looks like we have a fix from Boeing. Here is what’s happening.
- Better quality control procedures and testing to make the battery so that it behaves as it should
- Reducing the level considered to be a full charge and raising the level at which recharging begins
- Additional insulation between battery cells and between the battery and battery case to prevent fires from spreading
- New wiring and wire-sleeving inside the battery that will be more heat and chafing-resistant
- New fasteners that connect the metallic bars between cells that will have a locking mechanism
- Changes to the battery case that will now allow for better heat-venting and moisture-draining
- The battery case will now sit in a new enclosure that will isolate the battery further and provide direct venting outside the aircraft. This enclosure will deprive the battery of oxygen and will prevent a fire in the enclosure.
That’s a lot. So is this overkill? Probably, and I’m glad. The point here is to reduce the chance the battery will explode into a ball of fire, and then if it somehow does, reduce the chance that the fire can damage the airplane. I want this thing to be overbuilt because we don’t really know everything about lithium ion batteries and how they’ll behave in all situations. This is probably more than needs to be done, but that’s good. Load it up, make it safe. People are going to be watching closely.
Now the hard part is waiting… going through the testing process so that the 787 can fly again. As someone with no engineering background, this looks like a really solid solution, but what the heck do I know? Now it’s up to the authorities to do some serious testing. And you know that they will be looking at this VERY closely this time. According to Boeing, it’s just a matter of weeks before this is up and running. I just wonder how many weeks we’re talking about here.
I also find myself wondering how much more this new enclosure will weigh, and how much will it hurt the aircraft’s performance? At this point, that’s a secondary concern, but airlines are not going to be happy if it cuts range too much. On the other hand, Boeing just needs to get this thing back in the air again. And when that happens, I’ll gladly fly one.