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"Queen of Sheba," Air Ethiopia's Boeing 787 Dreamliner, sitting on a runway at Heathrow Airport

Photograph by Anthony Devlin/PA Wire via AP Images

"Queen of Sheba," Air Ethiopia's Boeing 787 Dreamliner, sitting on a runway at Heathrow Airport

British aviation authorities today identified a battery-powered electronic beacon as the likely cause of a fire that damaged a Boeing 787 at London’s Heathrow Airport last week.

The beacons, supplied by Honeywell International (HON), aren’t essential to operating the plane, and Boeing (BA) says they can be easily removed from other 787s, a precautionary measure that British authorities recommended.

That’s a relief. What’s less reassuring is the fact that the blaze was probably caused by overheating of a lithium manganese dioxide battery—a technology that is widely used in consumer electronics  and in electric cars such as the Chevrolet Volt (GM).

Isidor Buchmann, who runs Cadex Electronics, a Canadian company specializing in advanced battery testing, says that lithium-manganese batteries have been gaining popularity since the mid-1990s and have a good safety record. The models used by automakers are exceptionally safe, he adds. “Detroit takes their batteries seriously.”

The lithium-manganese battery used in the Volt, for example, has about 50 sensors to detect overheating and other malfunctions, Buchmann says. By contrast, the lithium-ion batteries blamed for repeated fires that grounded the entire Boeing 787 fleet earlier this year had only six such sensors, he says.

Batteries used in most consumer devices are much less powerful than those used in cars. Still, Buchmann—who maintains a website devoted to battery technology—says danger can lurk there, too, as evidenced by recalls of batteries used in Dell (DELL) and Apple (AAPL) laptops and notebooks.

The lithium manganese battery blamed for the Heathrow fire was a low-power model designed to activate an emergency beacon that could help rescuers locate the plane in case of a crash. Yet it caused major damage that won’t be easy to fix.

Matlack is a Paris correspondent for Bloomberg Businessweek.

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Companies Mentioned

  • HON
    (Honeywell International Inc)
    • $101.16 USD
    • 0.53
    • 0.52%
  • BA
    (Boeing Co/The)
    • $126.23 USD
    • 0.56
    • 0.44%
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