Wednesday, March 13, 2013

787 Battery Box Has Boeing Confined

Battery from ANA Dreamliner. Photo courtesy JTSB
The materials engineers at Boeing are probably already calculating the size and shape of the new box that will confine the Dreamliner's lithium ion batteries. But it will take a magician to get Boeing out of the box it's presently in. It has an airplane tied up to its wingnuts with a battery technology that may have to go and every way it turns, it finds another corner it cannot navigate.

Lithium ion, you recall, was selected because of Boeing's desire to get a lighter, more fuel efficient airplane. By using two sixtyish pound batteries to provide some of the airplane's voracious power and backup power demands, the 787 saved the weight of a suitcase or two. The heavier issue, excuse the pun, is all the reductions that Boeing achieved by making the 787 an electric airplane. Ductwork, motors, compressors, valves, heat shields and more have been removed from the engines and the airframe.

The batteries start engines, provide backup power for instruments, braking and the like and accomplish many more functions I wouldn't describe here even if I understood them all, which I do not. I do understand that these are locked into a complex system that requires the unique high capacity, quick charging capabilities of lithium ion batteries and specifically the cobalt oxide variety, which as luck would have it also happens to be the most prickly of an already volatile battery type.

How prickly? Well in obtaining certification from the Federal Aviation Administration for the batteries manufactured by GS-YUASA, Boeing tested the effect of short circuiting on a battery cell by poking it with a nail. There was smoke but no fire. Based on this and conversations with other unnamed companies experienced with this type of battery, the authorities pronounced the Boeing design "safe". That decision is one of many being reviewed by the FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board.

An NTSB investigator examines JAL material
What does not seem to be addressed by Boeing or the FAA, but of interest to the NTSB is a phenomenon called "field failure." You want to talk prickly? From the description taken from a report published by physicist Lewis Larsen, this is the mother of prickly problems.

A field failure is a random event that can occur right off the battery production line, Larsen writes. It is undetectable and unpreventable. But when one of these microscopically small failures gets going it becomes a miniature flash fireball generating temperatures that can peak as high as 5,000-10,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

Take a moment to absorb that.

Thermal runaway? That's just the start, according to a narrative on challenges in lithium ion battery safety by Brian Barnett in the Encyclopedia of Sustainability Science and Technology, published by Springer in 2012.

Barnett writes about "violent flaming and extremely high temperatures". Oh yeah, he also mentions the possibility of explosive combustion. 

"Most safety tests carried out in the laboratory or factory do not replicate the conditions by which safety incidents actually occur," Barnett writes.  The consequences for Boeing and its nail-in-the-cell tests should be obvious. (Read my post on why the frequency of these events makes it impossible for Boeing to meet certification requirements, here.)

Round about now you may be asking why Boeing, when faced with this information didn't fly non-stop to an alternative energy source. Well, the selection of this battery chemistry was made 7 or 8 years ago, even before the spontaneous combustion of scads of laptops, cell phones and other electronic doo-dads forced the recall of millions of lithium ion batteries. By the time battery scientists were starting to nod their heads and stroke their chins in dismay, Boeing's sub contractor Thales had already convinced Boeing that this particular energy source was the way to go.

Given the time spent developing the Dreamliner's battery power system, it is understandable if Boeing isn't searching on Google for suppliers of a less troublesome battery. It would be like trying to replace gas furnace with a space heater by plugging it into the plumbing.

The question is, can Boeing find a safer way to use lithium ion?  Or is it wasting time, money, energy and the last frazzled shred of its customers' good will when what it ought to be doing is beginning the long process of selecting and implementing an alternative? Very. Tough. Call. Most people I speak with share my sentiment that being Boeing is the worst thing you can be right now. 

Boeing is about to start producing containment boxes for its upcoming FAA certification flights. Right away I recommend it place a classified ad in the Seattle Times and the ad should read like this:

HELP WANTED: Magicians needed immediately in Everette, Washington. Candidates with experience slipping out of heavy chains and operating in confined spaces will be given top consideration. 


Flying Freedom Friendship said...

Hi Flying Lessons,

I see you had started the blog and I am inspired by your vision of sharing the greatness in aviation, especially on the 787 series.

Meanwhile all the best to both of us to pursue and serve people through aviation. Glad to know fellow aviators contributing to the society.

ChefNick said...

First of all, Huh? to the comment above. What was all that about? Sounds like spam, looks like spam, but . . . isn't?

Anyway, I now see, Christine, why all my earlier whines about Boeing simply switching to some other battery design are just a huge load of wishful thinking.

Because they've done the worst POSSIBLE thing anyone can do, with anything in any situation: they've put all their eggs in one basket. Bet the farm. Signed the check, taken the chemo option, made a two-story house but forgotten the stairs. Bought one two many deck chairs for all of them to fit in the space provided on the Titanic.

Looks like they've taken a room the size of Inner Mongolia and booby-trapped every inch of the floor except for the corner they're standing in.

Locked themselves in, thrown the key from a ship sitting above the Marianas Trench . . . need I go on?

Excuse my French, Christine, but it seems they're "FUBAR." Good bye, Boeing, good bye. Loved that 747 of yours. It was a heck of a pleasure to fly.

ChefNick said...

My God, I am no scientist and not technically-minded in any sense of the word. But reading that document on "field failures" sends blood-curdling chills up and down my spine.

If anything even CLOSE to any of the scenarios discussed ever happened at 38,000 feet the consequences would make the crash of JAL 123 look like a happy frolic in an amusement park.

God help everyone involved if a Dreamliner is ever allowed to fly with one of these batteries with a full complement of passengers on board.

David Sarum said...

How is this venture still even being pursued in light of these potentially catastrophic failures? It seems incredibly irresponsible to even attempt to continue development of a technology with such deeply rooted safety worries. I'm surprised no one has stepped in yet and forced them to look for an alternative.

Unknown said...

The sad fact is that in the period since the first flight of the B787, it has not received a single new order. All the orders activity was airlines switching options one of the models to the other. In the same period of time, Airbus has sold many A330's and A350's. The market has spoken.