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Boeing Dreamliners grounded due to lithium-ion battery fires

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Industry is always looking for ways to save money, and the airline industry is no exception. Two of the major factors in air travel cost today are weight and fuel. In an effort to reduce these costs, Boeing, famous for its 747, designed and built the 787 Dreamliner, an aircraft that relies more heavily on electric power. Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner was marketed as the next big thing in air travel, but has been grounded due to battery fires.

Before the fires, the outlook for Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner was good. Boeing had reduced weight by using more carbon fiber composite and less aluminum alloy in the aircraft’s structure. The result of the new design was that the Dreamliner weighed 20 percent less and would potentially be 30 percent cheaper to maintain. The dream of the 787 Dreamliner was caught by the industry.

The Economist last week reported in “Difference Engine: An innovation too far?” that “Even while it was still on the drawing board, carriers and aircraft-leasing firms jostled to get places in the queue for early deliveries.”

Boeing’s innovation in aviation is historic. The 747 was “the world’s first wide-body commercial jet.” The company went almost broke, but came back stronger than ever, selling 1,450 747s. Many had hoped (and some still do) that the Dreamliner would be similarly beneficial to Boeing.

But the dream did not last. After delivering 50 Dreamliners, the program was grounded due to two fires. On January 7, a fire started on a Dreamliner in Boston. A week later, a fire occurred on a another Dreamliner in Japan. The fires have been linked to the aircraft’s use of lithium-ion batteries.

As a result of the fires all 787 Dreamliners have been grounded until agencies in the United States and Japan finish investigations. In a recent press release Boeing said, “The safety of passengers and crew members who fly aboard Boeing airplanes is our highest priority,” and that they would support the resolutions of the agencies investigating in both the United States and Japan.

Despite Boeing’s statements that it supports the investigations, its recent history may speak otherwise. Back in 2008, well before the launch of the 787 Dreamliner, it was recommended by RTCA, an independent standards body, that further testing be done on lithium-ion batteries. Both the Federal Aviation Administration and Boeing went ahead with the plans for the Dreamliner anyway. Historic problems with the use of lithium-ion batteries in transportation and products should also have been warning signs to Boeing.

The use of batteries is not unique to Boeing. Boeing states, “All modern jetliners have batteries.” What’s different in the Dreamliner is its batteries generate more electrical power so that “functions that were formerly powered pneumatically are now powered electrically.” In the past on aircraft such as Boeing’s 767 pneumatic systems were used to start the engines, help with air conditioning, and provided an emergency shut off.

Lithium-ion batteries have been the choice for companies in search of ways to reduce fuel use because they are lighter, can supply higher voltages, and don’t suffer from the “memory effect” that can degrade other rechargeables. The drawback is that any damage to or contamination of the cells greatly increases their chance for “thermal runaway.” Thermal runaway happens when heat is generated by the batteries faster than it can be disseminated, often resulting in fire.

Boeing did implement safety measures and sensors within their lithium-ion cells but they appear to not have been enough. Saddest of all, concludes “The Economist,” “all it saved [to use lithium-ion batteries instead of other batteries] was 18kg (40lb) per plane — about the same, one expert noted, as a single piece of baggage.”

The effects of grounding Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner are not just on a national flight schedule scale but also on a local level. The Dreamliner’s windows were built by Gentex Corp. right here in Zeeland Michigan. Gentex has a $50 million contract for its dimmable windows. After an initial three year wait reported WZZM 13 in September of 2011 a representative of Gentex said, “Finally.” It looks like they may be waiting again as the 787s electrical system is reworked. According to The Economist, this could take as long as a year.

Despite all of this, Boeing remains hopeful that a solution can be found and the Dreamliner can return to the skies. For now “Boeing deeply regrets the impact that recent events have had on the operating schedules of our customers and their passengers.”

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