September 25, 2022

787 Lithium Batteries – Boeing’s Horrific Error On Risk Of Meltdown

787Boeing is widely regarded as the world’s leading aerospace company with a long tradition of innovation.  Planes such as the B-17 Flying Fortress lead us to victory in World War II and the majestic Boeing 747 used for presidential travel has become a global symbol of Boeing’s engineering and design excellence.

The current problems with the lithium batteries on Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner will eventually be solved but the problem airplane represents an interesting example of the limits and risks of product innovation.  Despite the known fire risks associated with lithium batteries, Boeing decided to use them anyway and was able to convince regulators that safety design features had reduced the risk of battery meltdowns and potential fires to a near zero probability event.

The Wall Street Journal reports that:

Before approving the Dreamliner to begin carrying passengers in late 2011, regulators embraced Boeing’s risk assessment showing that the chance of a 787 battery meltdown was about one in 10 million flights. That is roughly 100 times safer than some of the industry’s most reliable jet engines, which on average malfunction and have to be shut down roughly once every 100,000 flights.

In commercial use, the batteries have now ruptured and burned twice in less than 50,000 flights. Contrary to FAA projections of an extraordinarily low likelihood of a serious airborne mishap, Mr. Santhanagopalan said the malfunction rate of the batteries has been higher than would be acceptable for uses on the ground. “That wouldn’t be a reasonable number for the auto industry,” he said, declining to discuss assistance the lab is providing the 787 probe.

Regulators accepted Boeing’s estimates that a fire due to the use of lithium batteries was only 0.00001% but based on actual flights to date, it was dramatically higher at 0.004%.  This is like aiming for Mars and ending up on Pluto.

Where does this leave the traveling public?  After over a month of intense study, no one has a clue as to why the lithium batteries ignited into an intensely hot fire.  Even worse, Boeing’s proposed solution does not definitively resolve the problem but instead is aimed at containing future fires.  Boeing’s proposed fix involves adding ceramic insulation between cells and constructing a stronger stainless steel box with venting tubes to eject fumes and contain future fires.

Potential passengers are left to ponder two extremely disconcerting aspects associated with the thermal runaways of lithium batteries on two separate Dreamliner flights.   First, the inability of the world’s best engineering minds to find the root cause of the mishaps indicates that scientists don’t fully understand lithium battery technology.  Even more distressing is the horrific margin of error made by Boeing’s engineers in assessing the risk of using lithium batteries on a commercial aircraft.

Without a full understanding of why the batteries ignited and given the horrendously erroneous risk assessment  associated with using lithium, Boeing may have a really tough time trying to convince both regulators and passengers that the Dreamliner is safe to fly.

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