Boeing 787 Dreamliner Faces STEEP Challenges Returning to Sky

Flying Laptops in Sky

Is the Boeing 787 Dreamliner a Flying Laptop?

The Boeing 787 Dreamliner, a Flying Laptop?

February 26, 2013 – (Louisville, KY): Airlines around the world are pulling the Boeing 787 Dreamliner from their summer schedules, including Chicago based United Airlines, as it becomes clear the battery fix will take time. Boeing engineers met with the FAA last Friday to present technological solutions when it comes to fixing the lithium-ion battery the aircraft uses.

In light of the battery problems with the Boeing 787, European rival Airbus publicized they’re falling back to NiCD (Nickel Cadmium) battery technology for their new A350 aircraft. Boeing, on the other hand, is pushing ahead with new lithium-ion battery technology.

To acquire a healthy understanding of the challenge Boeing is up against from both a political and regulatory position, I had a chat with Dr. Oliver McGee III, Aerospace Engineer and former U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Transportation at the US Department of Transportation under the Clinton administration. Early on in our conversation, Dr. McGee said, “the 787 is a flying laptop.”

Wow — “A flying laptop” I said to myself. This precise comment grabbed my attention and kept it. As we progress further, you’ll find out why his analogy is spot on.

The 787 is an electric aircraft. “Boeing adopted significant new technology with the Dreamliner. Unlike mature, traditional aircraft, there are no hydraulic or pneumatic systems. The airliner consists of integrated circuits, a lot of programming, and just happens to use the same battery technology used for laptops and other consumer electronics, the lithium-ion,” said McGee.

“As a crucial part of US Heavy Industry, Boeing is taking technology we’re all familiar with on micro-scale, but they’re taking it to a mega-scale, or if you’d like, a small, fast, efficient laptop to a large, fuel-efficient aircraft,” per McGee. When going to a large scale, McGee opined, “You’re going to have problems to work through.”

In our conversation, McGee indicated, “The lithium-ion battery system built for the 787 is a colossal problem Boeing engineers must fix.” McGee said, “We can’t have thermal runaways on a commercial aircraft”, speaking of the battery system.  McGee reinforced, “Safety must always come first.”

It’s well known two 787 aircraft had serious incidents involving thermal runaway, which is why ANA initially grounded their fleet on the morning of January 16th in Japan. By mid-morning in the United States, the FAA grounded the aircraft for safety reasons.

From the regulatory standpoint, McGee said, “engineers from both Boeing and the FAA must partner in a joint venture to solve the problem together.” He firmly believes both Boeing and the FAA have the public safety at interest.

Inaugural departure from San Jose to Tokyo with ANA 787 service

Departure of Inaugural Boeing 787 Dreamliner from San Jose to Tokyo – January 11, 2013.

Is the lithium-ion battery safe?

Lithium-ion batteries have been in use since the 1990’s, but primarily for consumer electronics. To become better informed and to find out if lithium-ion batteries are indeed safe, I had a conversation with renowned battery expert Dr. Prashant N. Kumta, professor in the Swanson School’s Departments of Bioengineering, Chemical and Petroleum Engineering, and Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science at the University of Pittsburgh.

I asked Kumta if the lithium-ion was safe and the answer was an astonishing yes.

The batteries were first used for camcorders, then laptops, and have since been used for larger scale applications according to Kumta. Now they’re being used on the Boeing 787 as part of the “evolution of application” per Kumta. From an educational standpoint, “There’s a learning curve,” Kumta added, when it comes to lithium-ion technological advances in aerospace.

From an economic standpoint, I was surprised to hear Kumta say the lithium-ion was the safest battery for money based on price and weight.

When ANA launched the 787 Dreamliner on the San Jose (SJC) to Tokyo-Narita (NRT) non-stop route, a “long and thin” mission the aircraft was designed for, the new flight provided social, economic, and political benefits by linking Silicon Valley, the land of innovation, with Tokyo, Japan, a manufacturing business center.


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Regrettably safety issues with the battery resulted in the 787 Dreamliner groundings. Kim Walesh, Director of Economic Development, Chief Strategies for the City of San Jose, California, explained there is economic opportunity potential lost each day the Boeing 787 isn’t able to fly the new Tokyo route.

It’s important to note Dr. McGee is a STEEP advocate – Social, Technological, Educational, Economical, and Political. McGee commented, “solving the battery problem and operating a functional 787 provides all five of these benefits.”

Fortunately the 787 isn’t the DC-10 and there’s been no loss of life – McGee stressed, “we’re in the safest period ever for commercial aviation.”

The Boeing 787 Dreamliner Battery Solution

As to the solution, McGee exclaimed, “Boeing must keep pushing the envelope with the advancement of new technology and give engineers time to make the technology work. Boeing will turn out to be the market leader with new technology as it is perfected.” McGee continued, “A proper fix will take Boeing across the learning curve, providing a 30% technology leap which enables American competitiveness in mega-scale engineering and operations.”

While Boeing hasn’t said much, they’ve made it clear they’re committed to lithium-ion technology. However, “getting the battery right is a mega-scale engineering puzzle”, said McGee.   The battery in your iPhone will fall well short in attempting to power the 787 during an emergency – instead, large, multi-cell lithium-ion batteries have been developed.

When it comes to an answer, Boeing must go further than adopting a system to control heat, suppress any potential thermal runaway, and vent the gases outside the aircraft according to Peter Cohan, Engineer and Business Strategist. The little information which has been leaked from Boeing seems to provide the above impression; Cohan said, “I hope it’s more than that.”

Cohan’s concerns are valid. Lithium is highly volatile should a thermal runway occur and gases including oxygen, which could feed a fire, are produced. While suppression controls are certainly needed, alone they’re NOT a solution. Cohan believes Boeing needs to do a better job at communicating with the public, but it’s also quite possible they can’t discuss anything as a result of the on-going investigations.

Battery from JAL 787 in Boston

Burned and Damaged Lithium Ion Battery from JAL 787 in Boston

The NTSB determined a short circuit in one cell sparked the thermal runaway which propagated to all eight cells in the above pictured battery.  A hot fire, in excess of 500 degrees Fahrenheit, burned in the rear electronics compartment of the JAL 787 in Boston as a result of one cell encountering a short circuit. Thankfully this was on the ground with no passengers aboard. At a press conference, NTSB Chairman Hersman said that potential causes of the initiating short circuit currently being evaluated include battery charging, the design and construction of the battery, and the possibility of defects introduced during the manufacturing process.

While we don’t have a cause with either investigation, Kumta provides valuable insight as to what must be done for the battery to operate safely.

As we spoke, Kumta explained each cell must be controlled individually. The current battery contains eight cells all stacked in one unit. No individual controls currently exist and the short circuit of one cell quickly resulted in a thermal runaway with propagation to all eight cells in the Boston incident.

Kumta said that software exists which can monitor each cell, but stressed, “the moment a problem is indicated, the cell must be singled out and disconnected immediately.” In the case of a short circuit or charging problem, the battery cell can be designed to immediately disconnect and shut down according to Kumta. This clearly is not the case with the existing Boeing 787 battery design.

“When a cell is immediately cutoff, it doesn’t have the opportunity to go into an unstable state, preventing a thermal runaway”, said Kumta. Should a problem cell be cutoff, Kumta explained it’s possible to have a safety cell come online allowing for a full charge of 32 volts between the eight 4 volt cells.

Additional testing and battery modifications may also be required. Kumta raised concerns about the battery testing program opposed to how the batteries work in real world conditions, which includes withstanding pressurization and turbulence. However, Kumta stressed if an adverse condition happens, the cell must be cut off and disconnected.

Based on my understanding from our discussion, Boeing will need to separate and individually control all eight cells, or nine cells if a safety cell is added. The heat venting and fire suppression information which has been leaked is good to have in place, but alone, it falls well short of a viable solution.

On a final note, while Boeing has a large engineering puzzle to solve and experts such as Kumta firmly believe it can be done safely, there are still concerns about the Boeing 787 Dreamliner.

Airlines with grounded aircraft and missed delivery dates will have to be compensated by Boeing. The program has already faced significant cost over-runs and delays. At the same time, Boeing also made a decision to continue production despite the grounding as a result of the countless outsourced suppliers and complex supply chain.


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You can bet there’s a lot of pressure on Boeing to get the 787 back into the skies. Cohan questioned if the FAA was “more of a partner than a watchdog” as there is the issue of safety vs. getting the 787 airborne. “Someone has to be looking after the passengers,” said Cohan.

Looking at the full picture, I share some of his concerns – I would feel better if I knew more about Boeing’s fix, but at the same time I have full trust in Boeing engineers. For the record, I did contact Boeing for comment, but Boeing Spokesman Marc Birtel was only able to provide a copy of the statement Boeing issued last Friday.

Cohan said, “I’m pretty confident in Boeing” but still expressed concerns about the rush to get the Dreamliner airborne. McGee, having experience as a previous regulator is confident in Boeing and despite the lack of information regarding the new design, I’m confident Boeing will get it right and they’ll reap the rewards of being the leader in new technology.

Boeing took a risk with the 787 design and they must provide a proper fix. Despite pressure, I believe Boeing will produce a proper fix plus safeguards. Boeing can’t afford not to.  I’d be shocked if the regulators approved a fix which came up short.

As to the airlines with grounded aircraft, McGee said, “they took a risk being the first, but once the 787 Dreamliner takes to the skies again, they’ll also be the first to reap the rewards from a highly sophisticated, fuel-efficient, aircraft designed with creature comforts in mind.”

Who is Dr. Oliver McGee III?

(1) Dr. Oliver McGee III is an Aerospace Engineer and former U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Transportation at the US Department of Transportation. McGee is a Social, Technological, Educational, Economic, and Political STEEP analyst and bi-partisan STEEP advocate. Currently, McGee is a teacher, a researcher, an administrator, and an advisor to government, corporations and philanthropy

Who is Dr. Prashant Kumta?

(2) Dr. Prashant N. Kumta holds the Edward R. Weidlein Chair at the University of Pittsburgh Swanson School of Engineering and is a professor in the Departments of BioEngineering, Chemical and Petroleum Engineering, and Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science. He started work for University of Pittsburgh in 2007. Previously, he spent 17 years at Carnegie Mellon University working in the Biomedical and Materials Science and Engineering Departments. He obtained his MS in Materials Science and Engineering in 1987 and his PhD in 1990, both from the University of Arizona.

Who is Peter Cohan?

(3) Mr. Peter Cohan has an undergraduate degree in Engineering from Swathmore, completed graduate work in computer science at MIT, and obtained his M.B.A. from the Wharton School of Business. Cohan worked at Monitor Company, a business consulting firm co-founded by HBS professor Michael Porter; in 1994, Cohan 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“.



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