Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner is the newest, most modern and innovative airliner in production right now. Able to carry around 250 passengers, the Dreamliner is more fuel-efficient and more comfortable than any airliner yet built. The 787 is constructed mostly from composites that are lighter and stronger than most metals, and it is the first commercial aircraft to have most of its systems powered by electricity instead of hydraulics. In fact, the 787’s electrical system generates 1.5 megawatts of electricity! That’s about five times as much as other airliners generate. The Dreamliner is a cutting-edge aircraft that promises to revolutionize the way airliners are built. As of March 2013, over 800 are on order by airlines, and fifty have been delivered to eight airlines across the world.

Did you know? The Boeing 787's electrical system generates enough electricity to power about 400 homes.

Yet the 787 has only flown twice in the last two months, once on February 11 and once on March 25. That is because, on January 16, the United States’ Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and other aviation regulatory bodies across the world ordered that all Boeing 787 Dreamliners be grounded until a solution is found for problems with the lithium-ion batteries that provide backup power to the airplane’s electrical systems. The last time that the FAA ordered an airliner grounded was in 1979, after an engine fell off of a DC-10 which then crashed near Chicago, killing 273 people. The DC-10 was grounded for about a month before being cleared for service again.

The grounding occurred after two incidents with the Dreamliner this past January: a Japan Air Lines 787 had a fire in the aft battery compartment while on the ground in Boston on January 7, while nine days later an All Nippon Airways 787 made an emergency landing in Japan after smoke was detected in an electrical compartment and a battery malfunction warning was indicated. These two serious incidents coming so close to each other led aviation authorities to ground the 787 fleet until the problems with the batteries are both understood and fixed. As of yet, neither of those things have happened, and it may be months before the 787 is certified to carry passengers again.

787 Fire

Photo caption: Smoke from a battery fire coming out of the aft cargo bay of a Japan Air Lines Boeing 787 in Boston, January 7, 2013. (National Transportation Safety Board via Wikimedia Commons)

Lithium-ion batteries are rechargeable batteries used in almost all consumer electronics as well as electric vehicles, but the 787 is the first major use of the technology on an aircraft. Like other batteries, lithium-ion batteries use a chemical reaction between a lithium compound in the electrode and manganese dioxide in the cathode to generate, store, and discharge electricity. Most lithium-ion batteries, including those on the 787, use lithium cobalt oxide in their electrodes. Compared to other types of batteries, lithium-ion batteries are rechargeable, offer excellent energy density (amount of energy they can store compared to their weight), and hold their charge well when not in use. These excellent qualities, however, come at a price: safety.

Lithium-ion batteries, especially those that use lithium cobalt oxide, are very flammable and can self-ignite (lithium iron phosphate is safer, but it offers less energy density than lithium cobalt oxide). They can ignite for a variety of reasons, including short circuits, overcharging, extreme heat, mishandling, or manufacturing defects. A lithium-ion battery that catches fire will burn hot enough (600 degrees C) to overheat adjacent lithium-ion batteries, leading to a cascading effect. This is what happened with the JAL 787 in Boston: one of the battery cells overheated, which overheated adjacent cells.

787 batteries

Photo caption: An undamaged Boeing 787 battery (left) and the battery from the Japan Air Lines 787 that caught fire in Boston. The eight closely-packed battery cells can be clearly seen on the undamaged battery. (National Transportation Safety Board via Wikimedia Commons)

Lithium-ion batteries have been known to spontaneously ignite in many types of devices, including cell phones, laptops, and other portable devices. Recalls of these devices for battery defects are fairly common, and if your device has a recall, make sure that you bring it in. There have been a few air crashes linked to fires from lithium-ion batteries carried as cargo, including a UPS Boeing 747 freighter that crashed near Dubai in September 2010. After that crash, the FAA issued a safety alert detailing the dangers of lithium-ion batteries as cargo on aircraft, including the challenges of fighting lithium-ion battery fires. Devices such as laptops are not allowed to be carried as checked luggage on board most airliners, since it is felt that if they catch fire in the cargo hold the fire could spread unchecked, while if they catch fire in the cabin, it would be noticed quickly and put out promptly.

On February 7, the FAA gave permission for Boeing to fly carefully controlled test flights to help understand the 787’s battery problems and inform solutions proposed by Boeing. The March 25 flight was one of two that Boeing plans to make to support recertifying the aircraft to carry passengers again. Boeing has come up with a number of modifications that are designed to minimize the chances of a short circuit occurring, insulate the battery cells from each other, and provide a containment and venting system that would prevent any fire from spreading to the rest of the aircraft. Even though Boeing has stated that it believes that the root cause of the battery problems may never be known, it is hopeful that the solutions it has proposed will get the world’s 787 fleet back in the air soon and allow the company to resume deliveries of new aircraft.

Not everybody is so sure that the problems with lithium-ion batteries have been solved or even identified, however. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the independent American government agency that has responsibility for investigating all air accidents and making recommendations to improve safety, will be holding public hearings on April 11-12, 2013 into the use of lithium-ion batteries on board commercial aircraft, including the 787. The NTSB has also questioned whether the processes used by Boeing, the FAA, and other commercial aviation authorities were adequate to test and approve the use of new technologies, like lithium-ion batteries, in commercial aircraft. Meanwhile, Boeing’s great rival in the jet airliner market, Airbus, has dropped plans to equip its new A350 airliner with lithium-ion batteries, at least for now. Bombardier’s new CSeries jetliner, which is made its first flight on 16 September 2013, does not use lithium-ion battery technology either.

It is hard to say whether we will be seeing 787s in the sky anytime soon, but the hope is that the fleet will be in the air again this spring. A lot depends on whether Boeing can convince aviation authorities that it has come up with a solution to the battery fire problems and make the 787 safe. Can Boeing solve a problem if it can’t figure out exactly what caused the problem?

Update – June 20, 2013: Boeing began to modify the 787s belonging to All Nippon Airways and Japan Air Lines on April 22, 2013. All existing 787s have been modified and are carrying passengers, and new 787s are being delivered to airlines again. The FAA approved Boeing’s solutions to the 787’s battery problems on April 20, 2013, and a 787 flown by Ethiopian Airlines made the first passenger flight since the grounding on April 27, 2013.

What do you think: would you be comfortable flying on a 787 once they return to service? Join the discussion below.

Scott Taylor

Scott Taylor is Acting Program Manager for CurioCity at Let’s Talk Science. He grew up watching bug-eyed monsters in sci-fi B-movies and dreaming of our future in space, and remembers being a young child watching the first astronauts walk on the Moon. Passionate about the importance of science education and understanding how science and technology impacts our society, he is still a sci-fi geek.    

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