Is the Lithium-Ion Battery Safe for Aviation?
January 31, 2013 – (Louisville, KY): The new 787 Dreamliner is starting to become a nightmare for Boeing in addition to 787 operators as the grounding of the aircraft continues into another week. Can it be true the mere weight of a couple checked bags is keeping the plane on the ground?
The root of the problem is lithium-ion batteries Boeing installed in the 787 Dreamliner to reduce weight. Within a short period, two of these lithium-ion batteries went into thermal runaway resulting in small fires as battery electrolytes escaped and leaked into aircraft fuselage. The first event involved the rear battery, which powers the auxiliary power unit, of a JAL 787 in Boston on January 7, 2013. The most recent thermal runaway happened on an ANA 787-8 Dreamliner in-flight. This time the battery in the forward electronics bay was involved. Both events led to the grounding of the Boeing 787 fleet worldwide.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is involved in the investigation of both aircraft, but progress has been slow and answers have been few. As the NTSB and the Japan Tranportation Safety Board (JTSB) looks into these events, we reached out to Peter Cohan, for answers.
Peter Cohan’s background includes an undergraduate degree in electrical engineering from Swathmore, graduate work in computer science at MIT, and an MBA at Wharton. Cohan worked at Monitor Company, a business consulting firm co-founded by HBS professor Michael Porter; In 1994, he founded Peter S. Cohan Associates, a management consulting and venture capital firm of which he is president. Cohan teaches business strategy at Babson College and has written 11 books, including one about Boeing titled, You Can’t Order Change.
I asked Cohan about the safety of the lithium-ion battery; Cohan was quick to say, “How can such batteries be safe if it is illegal to ship them in the cargo hold of an airplane? The DOT considers them hazardous material.”
The most alarming of the two events was ANA Flight 692, a Japanese domestic service from Ube (UBJ) to Tokyo-Haneda Airport (HND) on January 16th. The Boeing 787 Dreamliner operating NH 692 was climbing to 33,000 feet when a battery alarm went off in the cockpit followed by a burning smell. The Dreamliner made an emergency landing at Takamatsu (TAK) in Japan and all passengers evacuated by emergency slides. Japanese carrier All Nippon Airways (ANA) grounded their 787 fleet moments after the emergency landing. Japan Airlines (JAL) quickly followed and nearly 24 hours later the FAA ordered the 787 grounded in the United States.
I was in a Tokyo hotel watching the events unfold the morning of Wednesday, January 16, 2013. I was scheduled to fly from Tokyo-Narita (NRT) to San Jose’s Norman Y. Mineta International (SJC) airport on a Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner on the evening of January 16th. As I discuss in a previous article, the flight was cancelled and I flew on a Boeing 777-300ER into San Francisco International Airport instead.
While Boeing had safeguards in place, passengers on ANA Flight 692 were lucky they were only 14 minutes from a diversion airport vs being 2 hours from a diversion point over the Pacific. I asked Cohan about the safeguards Boeing had in place for the lithium-ion battery, to which he responded, “The safeguards were supposed to prevent the batteries from over-heating.” Cohan continued, “If they did overheat, they were supposed to vent the smoke or flames outside the aircraft so they would not get into the passenger cabin. On the face of it, the idea that safeguards would actually be able to achieve this nice-sounding outcome does not seem plausible. The two events confirm that the safeguards were not well-implemented.”
Fixing the Boeing 787 Battery Problem
“The NiMH (Nickle Metal Hydride) batteries would weigh 37 pounds more a piece. This is the equivalent of two pieces of luggage for an airplane that weights about half a million pounds. The additional weight would be negligible and have no effect on fuel savings,” said Cohan when asked if the 787 could still fly the ‘long and thin missions’ it was designed for if a safer battery type was chosen.
With the above information in hand, I followed up, asking why Cohan felt Boeing selected the lithium-ion solution. Cohan said, “Boeing chose the Li-Ion battery because it is clearly the most powerful one per kilogram. The problem is that unlike other types of batteries, it can blow up because it is made of very volatile material. Boeing chose it because it would add the least to the 787′s weight and therefore support the key design goal – to make the plane lighter so it would use 20% less fuel.”
“The NiMH battery is not as powerful but it’s safer. It would need to be 50% heavier than the Li-Ion battery to deliver comparable power. This means that two NiMH batteries would add a total of 74 pounds to the 787 – about .01% of the 787′s current weight,” Cohan added.
However, Cohan doesn’t believe Boeing will change to the older, proven NiMH battery technology. “Boeing will try to fix the Lithium Ion battery. The reason is that fixing it would not take as long as the NiMH option,” Cohan said when I asked him about changes to the battery system or going to the older, proven NiMH battery technology.
Cohan believes a fix keeping the lithium-ion would take roughly four months but isn’t completely sure if it will work. If Boeing were to change to a NiMH battery, Cohan said, “The NiMH approach would take at least a year because it would involve building a new battery control system and testing the whole thing.”
While the regulators haven’t gotten to the root of the problem, I asked Cohan if the battery management system or other components might be behind the problems. “I think the problem is with the design of the battery. Afterall, lithium-ion batteries by their nature are prone to heating up fast. And the 787 battery consists of eight lithium-ion batteries stacked on top of each other in a metal box with no vents. Moreover, there is no space between the eight batteries, no temperature sensors on each one, and no cooling system to keep the batteries from going above a threshold temperature level,” Cohan replied.
As Airbus is reportedly using the lithium-ion battery in the new A350, I wanted to get Cohan’s opinion on this. “The weight savings are trivial compared to the additional risk of the batteries burning up. After the 2006 burning laptops incident, I would have hoped regulators would not let people use those batteries for anything as dangerous as an airplane.”
Boeing 787 Dreamliner Outsourcing included Battery
Much of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner was outsourced – more than any aircraft Boeing ever built including key items Boeing normally keeps in-house. In fact, a new trade controversy is brewing because a significant amount of the work landed in Japan.
Cohan is extremely vocal about the outsourcing:
“Boeing made a major mis-calculation with the outsourcing. That is evidenced by the $25 billion it has spent already to build the 787 compared to the $5 billion budget, the seven delays of the first shipment date, and all the technical problems since. The 787 program was based on outsourcing 60% of the aircraft. But it was not just run-of-the mill outsourcing.”
“As I pointed out in my book (You Can’t Order Change), Boeing outsourced not only the manufacturing – which it had done in the past – but also the design. This meant that Boeing would either have to assume that each of its suppliers shared Boeing’s commitment to quality standards and to making the pieces work together as well as Boeing’s passion for meeting deadlines. That was a bad assumption for Boeing to make and it did not have in place the right management processes to manage the suppliers who did not share Boeing’s standards of excellence.”
Boeing 787 Dreamliner: Conclusions
While the NTSB has yet to reach any, I believe it’s likely there will have to be a re-design of the lithium-ion battery housing. The way Boeing handles their accounting will soften the blow financially, but both passengers and air carriers must trust Boeing once a suitable fix is put in place.
While waiting for a fix, airlines such as ANA are encountering significant expenses. ANA has a total of 17 Boeing 787 Dreamliner aircraft in its fleet which remain grounded. The airline has had to substitute aircraft on a variety of domestic routes and alter equipment type in some international markets. For the new San Jose to Tokyo market, ANA has suspended service with San Francisco International Airport nearby.
ANA put a lot of work into the new San Jose route. The route operated smoothly for a week only to be temporarily halted.
Travel Industry Analyst & Strategist, Henry H. Harteveldt, of Hudson Crossing said, “This is a complex problem, and there will be no simple solutions. What everyone involved – Boeing, its subcontractors, the safety regulators, and airlines – want are definitive answers and solutions to this problem. The airlines will want to be confident that when the 787 is returned to service, it will be able to operate safely and reliably as Boeing initially promised.”
So far Boeing is reluctant to change to a safer, proven battery. The type of lithium-ion, with a lithium colbalt oxide chemistry, used in the Boeing 787 Dreamliner is said to be the most volatile of Lithium batteries. When it comes to hybrid automobiles and marine uses, you’ll find a “safer” lithium iron phosphate (LiFePO4) battery being used, but this chemistry results in a heavier battery and still carries risk.
In the JAL incident, work at the NTSB has transitioned from macroscopic to microscopic examinations and into chemical and elemental analysis of the areas of internal short circuiting and thermal damage.
I had the opportunity to fly the Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner from San Jose (SJC) to Tokyo-Narita (NRT) before it was grounded. I much enjoyed the aircraft along with its advanced features, but predict the current grounding will last several more months. It’s a nice aircraft and I personally hope to see it operating again soon. The new creature comforts, including lower pressurization, the Boeing 787 Dreamliner brings to commercial aviation are great from a passenger standpoint.
Currently eight airlines operate the Boeing 787 Dreamliner including ANA, JAL, United Airlines, Qatar Airways, Ethiopian, Air India, LOT Polish Airlines, and LAN Airlines of Chile.
The fact the NTSB has yet to find anything is also cause for concern, as the exact problem must be located to come up with a fix. The NTSB is expected to provide an update tomorrow on February 1st.