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MIT Professor: Fixing Boeing 787 problem could take years

Posting in Design

According to an MIT chemistry professor, fixing the Boeing 787 Dreamliner battery problem might take longer than expected.

Following an emergency landing in Japan when a battery caught fire on one of the Boeing 787 Dreamliners -- and a similar problem being reported in Boston a week earlier -- the European Aviation Safety Agency joined the FAA in grounding the planes. However, according to one battery expert, these planes could be left on the tarmac until 2014.

A host of technical problems have dogged the 787 since 2011, including fuel leaks, fires and damaged windows. A number of flights from Europe, Chile, India and Japan are now currently out of action.

Boeing said that the firm is "committed" to finding solutions to the problem as "quickly as possible," and is "confident the 787 is safe and we stand behind its overall integrity."

However, Professor of Materials Chemistry at MIT Donald R. Sadoway believes that a solution may not be so quick to find. According to the professor, the batteries of choice in the 787 Dreamliners -- eight-cell lithium-ion batteries -- need to be monitored and cooled, or they must be replaced with older but safer substitutions, nickel metal-hydride batteries (NiMH), even though certification could result in year-long delays.

Speaking to Forbes, Sadoway said that each 787 contains one main lithium-ion battery and a backup, in order to reduce weight and therefore fuel consumption, which generate 150 watt-hours per kilogram. However, lithium-ion batteries are far more likely to burn up than other alternatives, as they contain "an organic electrolyte which makes it volatile and flammable."

The battery expert explained to Forbes that he was "surprised" there was a lack of cooling equipment when he studied the 787's battery issues, and their containers only allow batteries on each end of a pack to let off heat -- so the other six are forced to heat each other up. There you have it -- the increased possibility of a fire.

"In a large format battery, heat can be generated faster than it dissipates to the surroundings with the result that the temperature of the battery can rise to dangerously high levels which leads to bloating and ultimately fire," he said.

Sadoway suggests that Boeing redesigns the batteries by putting temperature sensors on the battery casing and increase the air flow to reduce the risk of overheating before using simulated flights to test the stress threshold of the new system. However, these designs and tests are likely to take us into 2014.

Although the changes to these batteries could bump up the price from $1000 per battery to $2000, in comparison to the standard $207 million price of each Dreamliner, this sacrifice would not only improve passenger safety, but would be "peanuts" -- especially when you consider the charges Boeing will probably face from airlines who purchased the model.

Boeing has shipped roughly 50 Dreamliners to airlines worldwide, including Japan Air and United. There are currently 848 orders outstanding.

Image credit: Boeing

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— By on January 27, 2013, 7:29 PM PST

Charlie Osborne

Contributing Editor

Charlie Osborne is a freelance journalist and photographer based in London. In addition to SmartPlanet, she also writes for business technology website ZDNet and consumer technology site CNET. She holds a degree in medical anthropology from the University of Kent. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure