Will the Boeing 787 Dreamliner Fly by May?

Boeing 787 Dreamliner at Tokyo Haneda Airport

Boeing 787 Dreamliner at Tokyo Haneda Airport – January 15, 2013.

Boeing Preparing 787 for Flight

Louisville, KY – March 27, 2013 (FlyersPulse.com): Boeing made a successful test flight with the 787 Dreamliner and improved lithium-ion battery on March 25th. A Boeing owned 787 built for LOT Polish Airlines, Line Number 86, made the 2 hour 9 minute check-flight.

According to Boeing, the check-flight went as planned and the aircraft manufacturer has plans for an additional test flight in the upcoming days. Boeing has indicated they would like to see the 787 Dreamliner back in the air in May.

It was only a couple of months ago, January 12 to be precise, I had the opportunity to not only check-out the Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner, but experience a Dreamliner flight across the Pacific Ocean on a 10 hour 45 minute journey just days prior to its grounding.

The day I was scheduled to return to the United States on a Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner, I sat in my Tokyo hotel room watching the events of ANA flight 692 unfold. Flight 692 was a domestic flight from Ube (UBJ) to Tokyo-Haneda Airport (HND) in Japan. The lithium-ion battery in the forward electronics bay went into thermal runaway, causing the aircraft to make an emergency landing at Takamatsu Airport (TAK) in Japan. The aircraft landed safely and all passengers evacuated the aircraft via emergency chutes.

With the aircraft and passengers safely on the ground, ANA management immediately grounded their 787 fleet and JAL followed.

On the evening of the 16th, I departed Tokyo for San Francisco. Eight hours later I arrived into San Francisco International Airport to experience the Morning of the 16th a second time, compliments of the international date line. Within an hour of exiting the US Customs hall at SFO, the FAA grounding of the Boeing 787 made breaking news. Safety agencies around the world quickly followed, grounding the 787 Dreamliner worldwide.

Since January 16, 2013, the 50 Boeing 787 Dreamliner’s delivered to six airlines across the globe have sat idle. Now that Boeing has one test-flight out of the way, they’re aiming to have the Dreamliner flying in May. As well as that may rhyme, I’m fairly certain regulators will ask for more time.

FlyersPulse recently spoke with Dr. Oliver McGee, an aerospace engineer and Deputy Assistant Secretary of Transportation under President Bill Clinton. In our conversation about the Boeing 787, McGee questioned whether regulators would approve a return to the skies so quickly.

McGee said, “Take whatever date is agreed upon and add three to six months to it.”

There has also been talk of initially limiting extended operations, better known as ETOPS. Boeing has denied this is the case and dismissed it as speculation. While it may be speculative, this is one route regulators may decide to take, at least temporarily.

ETOPS restrictions would prevent the aircraft from being used on the “long and thin” routes the 787 was originally designed for. If regulators temporarily take this compromise, it’ll allow the Dreamliner to re-enter service on routes over land with diversion airports nearby if there is a problem.

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Boeing 787 Lithium-Ion Battery Problems

Unlike previous aircraft, the 787 Dreamliner is controlled electronically — there are no hydraulic or pneumatic systems. Instead, the aircraft relies on electricity. As a result, lithium-ion batteries were selected to provide backup power. The rear battery is also used to start the auxiliary power unit.

The lithium-ion batteries are the root of controversy in the two incidents which caused regulators to ground the aircraft.

The first incident happened at Boston-Logan Airport with a Japan Airlines (JAL) 787 parked at the gate, being prepared for its flight back to Tokyo. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) was able to determine a short circuit within a cell resulted in the thermal runaway of the rear battery. According to the NTSB the thermal runaway from the one cell propagated to all eight 4 volt cells which make-up the battery.

While the cause of the first incident has been identified, what happened to the forward battery on the ANA Boeing 787 flight in Japan still remains a mystery. The battery was destroyed as a result of thermal runaway. The incident still remains under investigation by the Japan Transport Safety Board (JTSB).

The Modified Boeing 787 Lithim-Ion Battery

While a short circuit was identified as the problem in the first event, the actual root cause is still under investigation.

Since the grounding of the 787, Boeing has put over 200,000 hours of work in between their best engineers to come up with potential causes and solutions. Working with Thales, the provider of the integrated power conversion system, and GS Yuasa, the Kyoto based manufacturer of the 787 lithium-ion battery, an improved lithium-ion battery was developed.

In a Tokyo press conference on March 15, Mike Sinnett, Vice President and Chief Project Engineer, 787 Program, Boeing Commercial Airplanes, gave a presentation about the battery improvements and provided detail.

Boeing 787 Dreamliner Battery Solution

Boeing 787 Lithium-Ion Battery Solution

Specific 787 Dreamliner Battery Modifications

First, new quality control testing will be conducted with cell production of the improved battery. Each battery is made-up of eight 4 volt cells. One quality control test will keep track of cell discharge rates every hour for a 14 day period.

One area of particular concern for Boeing is overcharging. Not only are four systems in place to prevent overcharging, but the improved battery will have a tighter voltage operating rage. This means reducing the upper range allowed and increasing the lower limit. Between these changes to the battery monitoring unit and changes to “soften the charging cycle” with the battery charger, the batteries will encounter less stress.

I spoke with lithium-ion battery expert, Dr. Prashant 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 about the improvements Boeing is making.

Kumta said, “Boeing’s plan to tighten the charge and discharge schedule is good.” However, he has a couple concerns which will be addressed as we continue forward.

As pictured in the diagram, Boeing will wrap an electrical insulator around each battery cell to electrically isolate the cells from one another as well as the battery case. Additionally, both electrical and thermal insulation will be installed above, below, and in-between the battery cells to keep heat from one cell impacting another cell. The goal is to isolate the cell from the rest of the battery if a specific cell fails.

However, Kumta still expresses concern about a cell failing. If this happens, Kumta asks, “Will it completely disconnect the entire battery pack and switch to a backup?” – I asked this specific question to Boeing and was referred back to the technical presentation. Looking at the design of the battery from documents released by the NTSB, the battery management unit does control a contactor which should take the battery offline. However, there is question about whether this occurred in the previous incidents.

Specifically, when ANA flight 692 made its emergency landing in Takamatsu, it was reported the aircraft wing and strobe lights were on despite being switched off. One function of the forward battery is to provide lighting and braking when the aircraft is being towed while off.

A March 27 update from the JTSB explained that after the incident battery voltage dropped, an electrical current from the rear APU battery via two relays to ground became possible; in this case both relays activated and the wing and strobe lights turned on as a result.

As both the NTSB and JTSB continue their investigation, it is likely additional information will be uncovered which will play a role in the final fix.

As far as a backup if the forward battery were to fail during an emergency, systems in the 787 are highly redundant. However, if both batteries were to fail during an emergency, a RAT – or Ram Air Turbine is available to create power. However, it is unlikely the Ram Air Turbine will ever be used.

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NTSB and Congressional Hearings

At one point there was talk of congressional hearings with respect to Boeing and the 787 Dreamliner. For the time being, it appears congressional hearings will not happen.

The NTSB which is tasked with the investigation into the battery failures will be holding a two day forum in Washington, D.C. on April 11-12. The forum will have panels which will discuss the role of lithium ion batteries in transportation.

Topics to be addressed will include:

  1. Design, Development, and Use of Lithium Ion Battery Technology
  2. Regulations & Standards for Lithium Ion Batteries
  3. Lithium Ion Battery Applications & Safety in Transportation

The NTSB will also hold a hearing specific to the 787 battery investigation later in April.

Addition 787 Lithium-ion Battery Improvements

Beyond the thermal and electrical insulation, the wire sleeving and wire inside the battery will be more resistant to heat and chafing. The busbars which connect the cells will be attached with new fasteners and small holes at the bottom of the battery case will allow moisture to drain.

Stainless Steel Battery Case for 787

Stainless Steel Battery Case for 787 Lithium-Ion Battery

Lithium-Ion Battery Sealed in Stainless Steel Box

A new stainless steel box has been created which will house the improved battery. If a battery cell were to fail, the cell will be allowed to vent into the sealed stainless steel box which has already picked up the nickname of the “boombox.” A titanium tube will then vent the electrolytes and gasses to the outside of the aircraft.

Boeing is confident a fire will not survive in the sealed box because there will be no oxygen. However, Kumta asked, “What about the temperature rise and the result if it exceeds the flash point of the electrolyte?” Kumta continued, “Venting will not solve it by then since the battery will already be in flames.”

However, Boeing does not believe this is possible and insists in a worst case scenario the sealed steel case will protect the aircraft.

On a final note, I look forward to seeing the Boeing 787 back in the skies once regulators give the go ahead. While the 787 Dreamliner problem has been plagued with problems, Boeing will be able to look back at this as a learning experience.

The aircraft brings a better passenger experience to consumers with unique features from larger windows to a higher air pressure inside the cabin in-flight. Instead of being pressurized at 8,000 feet above sea level (ASL), like most traditional aircraft, the cabin is pressurized to 6,000 feet (ASL) which allows for more humid air. As McGee previously told FlyersPulse, “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.”

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