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FAA grounds US Boeing 787 Dreamliners after second incident with Li-ion battery; GS Yuasa Lithium Power the manufacturer

17 January 2013

As a result of an in-flight battery incident on a Boeing 787 Dreamliner yesterday in Japan, the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued an emergency airworthiness directive (AD) to address a potential battery fire risk in the 787 and to require operators to temporarily cease operations of the aircraft.

Before further flight, operators of US-registered, Boeing 787 aircraft must demonstrate to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) that the batteries are safe. The FAA said it will work with the manufacturer and carriers to develop a corrective action plan to allow the US 787 fleet to resume operations as quickly and safely as possible.

The in-flight Japanese battery incident followed an earlier 787 battery incident that occurred on the ground in Boston on 7 January 2013 and resulted in a fire. (Earlier post.)

The AD was prompted by this second incident involving a lithium-ion battery. The battery failures resulted in release of flammable electrolytes, heat damage, and smoke on the two 787s. The root cause of these failures is currently under investigation. These conditions, if not corrected, could result in damage to critical systems and structures, and the potential for fire in the electrical compartment, the FAA said.

Last Friday, the FAA announced a comprehensive review of the 787’s critical systems with the possibility of further action pending new data and information. In addition to the continuing review of the aircraft’s design, manufacture and assembly, the agency also will validate that 787 batteries and the battery system on the aircraft are in compliance with the special condition the agency issued as part of the aircraft’s certification.

United Airlines is currently the only US airline operating the 787, with six airplanes in service. When the FAA issues an airworthiness directive, it also alerts the international aviation community to the action so other civil aviation authorities can take parallel action to cover the fleets operating in their own countries.

Boeing selected Thales, a leading provider of onboard and ground systems for the civil aerospace market, to provide the lithium-ion battery technology, along with other systems and components for the 787. For the Li-ion system, Thales was prime contractor in association with Securaplane of the United States and GS Yuasa of Japan.

The Li-ion batteries in the Dreamliner are manufactured by GS Yuasa Lithium Power (GSYLP). Thales selected the GS Yuasa cells for the 787 in 2005. The multi-year, multi-million dollar contract was an historic first as it marked the first commercial aviation application of Li-ion technology.

GS Yuasa’s Li-ion prismatic batteries—its LVP 10-65 cells, with lithium cobalt oxide cathode materials—on the Dreamliner provided both Auxiliary Power Unit start and emergency power back-up capabilities. In the first phase of the contract, GS Yuasa delivered prototypes to Thales starting in spring, 2005; mass production started in 2007.

At the time, GS Yuasa said its Li-ion batteries offered 100% greater energy storage capacity than the existing nickel-cadmium batteries used in airliners. The battery can charge from 0 to 90% in 75 minutes and comes with battery management electronics which were intended to provide multiple levels of safety features.

At the time of the announcement of the contract with GS Yuasa in 2005, Steve Grinham, General Manager of the electrical activity of Thales, said:

Thales is determined to create the safest, most advanced, efficient and reliable power system possible for the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. We are partnering with GS Yuasa because we are delighted with their battery technology. Since it is maintenance-free and has longer service life comparing to current nickel-cadmium batteries, it makes for lower operating costs and increased safety for airline companies.

In response to the FAA action, Boeing issued the following statement:

The safety of passengers and crew members who fly aboard Boeing airplanes is our highest priority. Boeing is committed to supporting the FAA and finding answers as quickly as possible. The company is working around the clock with its customers and the various regulatory and investigative authorities. We will make available the entire resources of The Boeing Company to assist.

We are confident the 787 is safe and we stand behind its overall integrity. We will be taking every necessary step in the coming days to assure our customers and the traveling public of the 787’s safety and to return the airplanes to service. Boeing deeply regrets the impact that recent events have had on the operating schedules of our customers and the inconvenience to them and their passengers.

January 17, 2013 in Aviation, Batteries | Permalink | Comments (39) | TrackBack (0)

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Must be some sort of glitch in the battery management system. Li-ion battery is a proven technology in billions of cell phones and portable computers and devices. Most new aircraft designs and car models have teething problems that must be resolved after commercial release. For that reason, auto mfg's are keeping the prices of new-release EV's (including HEV's and PHEV's) high to sell only a limited number of vehicles to work out the initial teething problems, in order to avoid massive cost of recalls.

It took them 40 minutes to put out the fire in Boston - you wouldn't want that at 35000 feet above the Pacific.

If a car goes on fire, you can just pull over to the hard shoulder - not so in a plane.

Anyway, let's hope it has a clear, single cause which can be detected and fixed, and we don't have to back to NiCad's. Increasing the amount of electric power in a plane can increase the efficiency (with electric taxiing etc.) so we want this solved, rather than just rolled back to NiCad's.

'GS Yuasa’s Li-ion prismatic batteries—its LVP 10-65 cells, with lithium cobalt oxide cathode materials'

So they have plumped for the highest energy density chemistry instead of the most stable, and one similar to that which caused problems in laptops.

Lithium titanate or lithium iron phosphate would almost certainly not have had a problem.

This was back in 2005 when they selected those cells, changing the chemistry would probably entail a lot of paperwork

Right on the money Davemart. It seems that corporations everywhere are filled with vacuous talking heads incapable of making rational decisions. There are plenty of li-ion chemistries that would avoid the difficulties described regarding the batteries used in the 787. They could additionally have choosen ionic liquids as electrolytes. Sure, current density is not that high, but this is not an automobile application. This is a story that the average reader will see as indicating that li ion is dangerous, but for me it indicates that the lack of intelligence in corporations is dangerous. They spend billions, but can't make a rational choice. Poorly done Boeing. It didn't occur to you to ask an expert on batteries?

Um it was chosen 7 plus years ago so it was completed tech wise 9 years ago so um duh its not the best shock of shocks...

All the above, esp. Davemart, Herm, and wintermane2000.

BK4, rapid charge acceptance was part of the requirements for the 787 battery; using electrolytes which do not allow rapid charging would have defeated the entire purpose.

DaveMart read my mind; LiFePO4 is known for its extremely high specific power, and seems like a very good prospect.  If Boeing wasn't already investigating this chemistry with an eye toward issuance of a Supplemental Type Certificate (STC) for a substitution, I'll bet they've got something in motion now.  Strange to say, I might even know some of the people involved.

Boeing has had multiple management (and design) problems with their B-787 for many years. It was delayed for almost 4 years to find and apply multiple fixes.

Why wasn't the battery potential problem identified and fixed 3 or 4 years ago? Or, was it only one of the 1000+ fixes to address? How did Boeing manage to get these batteries certified in the first place?

These batteries may not be the only potential failure on this plane? An in-depth investigation will probably find more? Meanwhile, those planes may be grounded for an extended period.

Imagine if this problem had caused a crash. We'd go from the Hindenburg hydrogen syndrome to the 787 lithium ion battery syndrome.

I think it will be a mistake to criticize Boeing to harshly. The 787 makes many giant leaps in technology and it is reasonable that there will be problems to solve. Hopefully the problems that arise will be fixed without fatalities. Certainly many problems have already been addressed and solved. Remember the fatal problems and subsequent learning experienced by the DC-10, B737, B727, Airbus 300 (American flight 587).

This could be a case of too many levels of subcontractors. GS Yuasa may have some misgivings, but they do not have authority to change the specifications.

The FAA report should hopefully shine some light on the subcontractor relationships.

@citizen - amen

Lithium Polymer (Li-Po) battery using Li-Cobalt chemistry have been in use by millions of radio-control hobbyists world-wide for almost a decade now without problem. Hobbyists are amateurs who usually abuse the Li-Po for kicks in R/C airplanes, cars, or boats or helicopters, usally discharge them at very high rates (20 C) and probably completely discharging, too, but there have been very few incidences of fire. Nowaday, Li-Po can be charged as fast as 8 C without problem. 6-C charging mean from zero to fully charged in 10 minutes! The problem has got to be either with faulty battery construction, or with the battery controller system. Both can be easily replaced.

Li-Po is far better than NiCad or NiMh, with much less internal resistance. Li-Po of 30 C rating or higher ( Li-Po batteries are now rated as high as 80 C) does not even get hot at 20 C discharging rate!

A 8S very big Li-Ion LVP65 cells (75Ah x 3.7V x 8) battery without circuit-breaker (of course) on each single cell is not obviously a nice choice for an aircraft battery and to prevent thermal runaway phenomena. It's may be time for Boeing's subcontractors to comme back to a traditional two 24 Volts Nickel-Cadmium batteries solution or a more sophisticated Serie/ Parallel design with smaller prismatic Li-Ion cells . It's a necessary long way to go!

An anonymous punter from GS Yuasa said "Our company's battery has been vilified for now, but it only functions as part of a whole system. So we're trying to find out exactly where there was a problem within the system."

Lack of communication could be a problem.

I burned up my first lithium battery in an RC model glider twenty years ago this summer. Last year I made a mistake while recharging five lithium ion polymers and exploded and burned all of them. Roger says that RC pilots have been able to abuse a lot of li-pos and get away with it. While mostly true, some of the exceptions are eye-openers.

There have been a significant number of house fires and many vehicles burned up by accidents with Li-pos. Many modelers just figure it goes with the territory.

Having said that; I would not fly in an airplane with a lithium battery on board. They are not yet ready for prime time.

Speaking as someone who had a minor role in the 787 project with a supplier, Lucas, I think you're more right than wrong.

Then again, nothing worthwhile is ever accomplished without failures along the way.

@Raymond B,
NiMh has 3x the specific energy capacity in comparison to NiCad, and in HEV's, NiMh have proven to be very safe. All Boeing has to do is directly utilize the proven NiMH hybrid car battery's prismatic cells and connect them to the size and capacity that they so desire.

@Lucas,
Sorry for your loss, and yes, Lithium Cobalt battery is quite intolerant of improper charging. But, once a R/C pilot have gone with a Li-Po pack, is not going to come back! (to NiCad nor NiMh!) The power, capacity, and performance of modern Li-Po is truly breathtaking, and allow electric models with brushless motor to outperform equivalent-size nitro powered models!

Lithium batteries were outlawed in ELTs in the early 1980s. The FAA issued an Air worthiness Directive due to exploding batteries at the time.

As for Boeing they decided to make the battery container an integral part of the 787 air frame structure. Go figure that one out!

@ Engineer-Poet

"Then again, nothing worthwhile is ever accomplished without failures along the way."

Even if it could potentially kill passengers in the process? Not on my watch.

Flight has potential dangers.  So do railways.  You control for the risks the best you know how, and try to learn from the inevitable failures.

Did you notice that the only harm from these incidents came, not from the failure, but from what may have been overly-hasty evacuations?  Compared to the crash of the Brazilian Airbus a couple years ago with the death of all passengers and crew, the 787 troubles are non-events.

First of all, anyone who thinks LiPo, which was not used, is safe, is insane. Hobbyists blow up LiPo's all the time, they are probably the least safe chemistry. If you blow up your toy car or plane it's not a big deal.
As to the actual cells used, if you read the PDF in the article their specific energy is around LiFePO4 levels. With higher C rates and better safety LiFePO4 is probably what they should be using. If they were fully charging a 65ah cell in 75 minutes they were exceeding the 1C rating of the cell, depending on how deeply discharged they were.
That said this is really a battery management/charger failure that potentially could have caused any battery to catch fire from over charging.

During investigations/as replacements, can't they substitute past, proven battery systems - even oversized - for these two batteries?

Charging in 75 minutes is 0.8 C.

Substituting other batteries would require an STC, which requires a lot of testing and associated paperwork.  This is not something that comes easily or cheaply, though compared to the cost of a Dreamliner it won't come to much.

The part that's most interesting to me is how these problems failed to be detected much earlier.  Either the production cells are of lower quality, or it was just the luck of the draw.

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