The Boeing 787's high-profile battery fire may have been the result of an engineering double-whammy: an energetic battery chemistry combined with a possibly inadequate cooling system.
Battery experts who spoke to Design News this week said that the 787's lithium-ion batteries employed a cobalt oxide cathode, which is known to be more prone to overheating than other lithium battery chemistries. If that chemistry was used without extra measures to draw heat away from the pack, it could be a problem, experts said.
"It's a no-brainer," Elton Cairns, a professor of chemical engineering at the University of California and a nationally known battery expert, told us. "If they used a cobalt oxide chemistry, then the battery should use a cooling system."
An NTSB engineer examines the casing from the battery involved in the JAL Boeing 787 flight in Boston.
Although Boeing has not said whether the 787's lithium-ion battery packs use any kind of active cooling system, experts who saw photos of the packs said it looked unlikely. "The images I saw indicated that there was no active cooling system and this battery pack has many cells stacked close together," Donald Sadoway, the John F. Elliot Professor of Materials Chemistry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, wrote in an email to Design News. "So you need active thermal management."
Boeing representatives told Design News that their lithium-ion battery pack used specific measures to prevent overcharging. "There are multiple back-ups to ensure the battery system is safe," a Boeing spokesman told us. "That includes protection against over-charging and over-discharging."
Boeing representatives did not know whether the battery packs included cooling, however. And cooling was not mentioned in a five-page transcription of a Boeing media call explaining the incidents.
The 787's use of lithium-ion batteries for the auxiliary power unit is said to be a first, which is one of the reasons why the batteries are being scrutinized so heavily. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) X-rayed batteries from a January 7 fire aboard a Japan Airlines Boeing 787 at Logan International Airport in Boston. The NTSB team also did CT scans, disassembled the battery, and examined flight data recorders to determine if it exceeded its design voltage of 32V.
On January 20, investigators said that the battery did not exceed its prescribed voltage. Since then, the agency has continued to look for the root cause of the problems, which have occurred on two Japan Airlines flights and one United flight.