Can Boeing aircraft still rely on lithium-ion batteries to power the plane’s important systems?

This has been the focus of a new report from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the U.S. agency responsible for investigating air crashes, where it called for rigorous testing to be conducted on the lithium-ion batteries used on Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner aircraft. An uncontrolled overheating incident involving said aircraft occurred in December 2013 that led to a battery fire. The results of said investigation require better testing methods for the batteries on 787s and other planes using the lithium-ion batteries, to ensure that they are safe.

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Inadequate 2006 Testing Processes
The NTSB urged the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) that an independent panel’s advice should be sought whenever new technologies on commercial aircraft are introduced, explaining that the 2006 testing processes for the certification of this specific battery type were not enough.

Electricity Storage Device
For Boeing aircraft, these batteries have been chosen as a reliable storage device for electricity as they are small yet powerful. They are found in cellphones, power tools, cars, and laptops. This particular type of battery allows everyone to talk, send an email and drill longer than it was ever possible many years ago. The aircraft company introduced this battery to the 787 Dreamliner aircraft – the first-ever commercial aircraft to rely heavily on the power strength of lithium-ion batteries.

Less Fuel Burned
Boeing was able to swap out the heavy hydraulic systems in the airframe for lightweight electronic and electric aerospace motors to operate wing de-icers systems through the lithium-ion batteries. This is why the 787 Dreamliner burns 20% less fuel than other aircraft of the same class. While the batteries attributed to a significant amount of savings on the aircraft’s fuel usage, the lithium-ion batteries tend to burst into flames occasionally.

Uncontrolled Overheating Causing Battery Fire
This “occasional occurrence” has made the NTSB short of calling the batteries of the planes using them, unsafe in view of the series of battery fire problems that ensued following the first incident for the Japan Airline-operated 787 aircraft parked at the Logan International Airport in Boston. The second incident happened on yet another 787 for All Nippon Airways while on a flight in Japan in January, last year. These incidents led to the aircraft being grounded for more than 3 months. While the planes were grounded, Boeing designed a containment box made of steel as a measure to prevent battery fires on the 787 aircraft.

Special Installation Conditions
Investigation findings showed that when the FAA certified the 787 Dreamliner aircraft for flight operation, it issued special conditions for the installation of the lithium-ion battery as existing regulations didn’t cover the technology.

NTSB Recommendations
Five safety recommendations were made by the NTSB following the initial results of its investigations, which include:

  • Guidance to develop a more advanced test that will demonstrate safety performance of the battery under extreme conditions and in a simulated aircraft environment
  • Re-evaluation of short-circuit risk for lithium-ion batteries currently being used
  • FAA to consult experts outside the aviation industry to ensure that FAA and aircraft manufacturers have access to the latest research and information related to the developing technology
  • FAA to review testing and improve certification standards on lithium-ion batteries

According to NTSB, designs of lithium-ion batteries on airplanes currently in use might not have sufficiently taken into account the hazards associated with or related to internal short-circuiting.

Knowing this, will you still fly on a 787 Dreamliner?

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