Grounding the Dreamliner

Is the Boeing 787, heretofore known as the Dreamliner, becoming a nightmare for Boeing? The bet-the-company bird has had a difficult entry into service, with a number of early incidents such as a crack windshield. And now, two incidents with lithium ion batteries catching fire and generating smoke have caused the FAA, Japan's civil aviation authorities, and other aviation regulators to ground their airlines' 787.

 The New York Times describes the problem:

The 787 uses two identical lithium-ion batteries, each about one-and-a-half to twice the size of a car battery. One battery, in the rear electrical equipment bay near the wings, is used to start the auxiliary power unit, a small engine in the tail that is used most often to provide power for the plane while it is on the ground. The other battery, called the main battery, starts the pilot's computer displays and serves as a backup for flight systems.

The Seattle Times offers details of what really happened:

Hot chemicals sprayed out of the battery on the 787 Dreamliner in this week's emergency landing in Japan, leaving a gooey dark residue and suggesting a different malfunction than last week's 787 battery fire in Boston, according to two people with knowledge of the situation.

The residue covered the battery and splattered over nearby instruments inside the forward electronics bay. It left a 12-foot-long dark streak from the battery to an outflow valve through which some of the spray vented overboard during the flight.

At this stage, it is impossible to predict how this problem will be solved, at whose expense and with what consequences. The battery's manufacturer, GS-Yuasa, is on the spot and not saying anything, presumably for fear of litigation. Because of their high energy density (packing lots of power in a small mass), problems with the batteries can be nasty. Boeing used lithium ion batteries precise for this reason, to save weight.

The Times:

Boeing has defended the novel use of the batteries and said it had put in place a series of systems meant to prevent overcharging and overheating.

In a conference call last week with reporters, Boeing's chief engineer for the 787, Mike Sinnett, said that the company had long been aware of possible problems with lithium-ion batteries, but it had built numerousredundant features to keep any problems with the batteries from threatening the plane in flight. He said the batteries had not had any problems in 1.3 million hours of flight, and that Boeing was trying to understand what had caused the problems.

Mr. Sinnett said that if the lithium-ion batteries started a fire, it would be nearly impossible to put out because the batteries produce oxygen when burning. Mr. Sinnett said that the plane was designed to survive such an event in flight, when the cabin's air-pressure system protects passengers and allows the plane to vent the smoke outside. The plane is also designed, he said, to contain a fire to a small area.

My hope is that the problem can be solved and the Dreamliners returned to the sky, with no more major teething problems.  Boeing is the single biggest exporter from the US, a major defense contractor, and an essential underpinning of our great country status. If Boeing has blundered in its innovative project management scheme for producing the 787 through a vast network of contractors, then our national welfare will suffer.

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