Firefighters at Boston’s Logan International Airport opened the hatch of a burning Boeing Co. (BA:US) 787 Dreamliner this week to encounter a hazard from something almost ubiquitous in modern life: lithium-based batteries.
The power sources for devices ranging from Apple Inc. (AAPL:US)’s iPad to tools to plug-in cars hold so much energy and are so flammable that when they ignite, they can be difficult to extinguish as they spew flames and even molten metal, according to U.S. government tests.
Boeing got U.S. regulators’ permission to install lithium- ion batteries on the Dreamliner in 2007, three years after passenger airlines were barred from carrying non-rechargeable types as cargo. U.S. officials investigating the Jan. 7 fire will examine whether the 787 batteries met the government’s conditions, said Michael Barr, an instructor at the University of Southern California’s Aviation Safety and Security Program.
“We know that batteries burn,” Barr said in an interview. “We know that lithium batteries have a higher propensity to burn. Is there a basic design issue?”
The review of this week’s fire probably will also examine whether the 2007 decision provided adequate safety, Barr said.
Boeing installed multiple circuits to ensure that the plane’s power system won’t overcharge the batteries, which can cause them to heat up and burn, Mike Sinnett, the 787 chief project engineer, said in a briefing.
“We put a lot of system protections in place to ensure that failures of the battery don’t put the airplane at risk,” Sinnett said.
The Jan. 7 fire on a Japan Airlines Co. 787 occurred after passengers who had flown from Tokyo left the plane, according to a release from the National Transportation Safety Board, a U.S. agency that investigates aviation accidents.
A rechargeable battery used to start the auxiliary power unit, a small turbine engine that generates electricity on the ground, ignited, according to the safety board. It took fire crews 40 minutes to extinguish the fire, the safety board said.
GS Yuasa Corp. (6674) of Kyoto, Japan, made the battery pack on the 787, Tsutomu Nishijima, a company spokesman, said in an interview. The firm sells them to Thales SA (HO), which then supplies them to Boeing, Nishijima said.
While fires in batteries are rare, they have been linked to aviation accidents, electric vehicle blazes and exploding smartphones.
The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration has logged 33 instances in which batteries have caught fire on commercial airplanes since 2009. Of those cases, 26, or 79 percent, involved lithium batteries, according to the agency.
Three cargo jets have been destroyed in fires since 2006 in which lithium batteries were present, according to the NTSB. The United Nations’ International Civil Aviation Organization on Jan. 1 imposed new rules on air shipments of lithium batteries.
Lithium-ion batteries used to power electric cars also have been probed by U.S. safety regulators.
In 2011, a General Motors Co. (GM:US) Chevrolet Volt caught fire three weeks after a government crash test, spurring a congressional hearing. GM agreed to fortify the plug-in hybrid’s battery packs so they wouldn’t ignite if cracked in an accident.
Then in May, the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration joined an investigation in Texas of a garage fire that destroyed a Fisker Automotive Inc. Karma, a $103,000 plug- in car. The battery was “absolutely, conclusively not the cause” of the incident,’’ Russell Datz, a Fisker spokesman, said in an e-mail. The company traced the fire to a cooling-fan defect that was addressed through a recall, he said.
Lithium-ion batteries are safe as long as they are manufactured and used according to regulatory standards, George Kerchner, executive director of the Washington-based Rechargeable Battery Association trade group, said in an e-mail statement.
“Billions of lithium-ion cells and batteries are safely used in hundreds of consumer, military, medical and electric vehicle applications every year,” Kerchner said.
The Dreamliner is the first Boeing plane designed with lithium-ion batteries as part of the electrical system. Boeing chose them for the 787, which uses more electricity than previous designs, because they hold more energy and can be quickly recharged, Sinnett said.
In a worst-case scenario in which the batteries do burn, they are designed to do so in a way that doesn’t threaten the aircraft, Sinnett said. If the jet is airborne, smoke is vented out of the compartment and won’t reach the cabin. All of the battery cells can ignite without harming the plane’s ability to stay aloft, he said.
Damage from the Jan. 7 fire was confined to within 20 inches (50.8 centimeters) of the battery pack, the NTSB said. A photo released by the agency appeared to show that nearby electrical equipment was untouched. The base where the battery sat was charred, according to the photo.
The Air Line Pilots Association, a union representing more than 50,000 pilots in North America, urged in 2007 that the FAA require some type of fire extinguishing system for lithium batteries on the 787, according to its response to the FAA.
The FAA rejected the union’s request, saying that the steps it required achieved the necessary level of safety.
The union remains concerned about lithium batteries on commercial aircraft, both those built into planes and those carried aboard as cargo or by passengers, Mark Rogers, who leads hazardous-materials-handling issues for the group, said in an interview.
“As more and more batteries are produced, we are going to see more and more incidents just based on the sheer volume,” Rogers said.
Lithium batteries contain more stored electricity and have longer life than comparably-sized batteries made with other materials. “Lithium-ion batteries have so many advantages,” Hans Weber, who runs San Diego-based aviation consultant Tecop International Inc., said. “They’re the future, no doubt about it.”
Their power also makes them more likely than other battery types to create heat and sparks if they short-circuit, and fires are difficult to extinguish because the chemicals are flammable and contain oxygen, Sinnett said. Fire extinguishers that snuff out most blazes don’t work as well on lithium, he said.
Just as the NTSB and FAA are keeping a close watch on how the battery could have ignited in the Boeing plane, fire prevention are trying to develop techniques for dousing battery blazes and storing them safely, said Kathleen Almand, executive director of the Fire Protection Research Foundation in Quincy, Massachusetts.
The growth in battery use has led to more fires and greater interest in how to handle them safely, Almand said in an interview. Her foundation is part of the National Fire Protection Association, a non-profit group that promotes fire safety.
The foundation has studied how to safely store large quantities of batteries in warehouses and how firefighters can attack fires in electric vehicles, she said.
“There is a learning curve whenever you implement a new state of-the-art-technology,” Jerry Back, senior fire protection engineer at Baltimore-based Hughes Associates Inc., said in an interview. “It just happens that this is used in everyday life.”
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