Whether or not the battery exceeded its design voltage, however, experts believe a cooling system was critical. Lithium-ion battery chemistries in general are "energetic," they said, and the cobalt oxide varieties of lithium-ion are particularly so.
"Not all lithium-ion batteries are created equal," Cosmin Laslau, a research analyst for Lux Research, told us. "None of them should fail. They are all essentially safe. But in the event of a failure, lithium cobalt oxide would fail earlier than the other types. Chemical bonds in lithium cobalt oxide will release oxygen earlier." Experts say the release of that oxygen can, in rare cases, lead to fire.
Many engineering teams around the world choose cobalt oxide chemistries, however, because it offers energy densities that can be up to 25 percent higher than other types of lithium-ion, such as manganese spinel (used in the Chevy Volt) and phosphate-based systems.
To counteract the higher energies, big, lithium-ion batteries in general are often used in conjunction with cooling systems, no matter whether they are cobalt-, manganese-, or phosphate-based. The Chevy Volt, for example, employs liquid coolant that circulates through 1-mm thick channels machined into 144 metal plates sitting between its lithium-ion manganese spinel cells. Similarly, the Prius PHV plug-in hybrid uses specialized fans, intake ducts, and 42 temperature sensors to actively monitor and cool its lithium-ion battery.
To be sure, the 787's 63-lb battery pack is smaller than those of today's typical electric cars, which can often exceed 400 lb. But experts said that lithium-ion batteries of all types need ways for heat to get out. "Size does make a difference," Cairns told us. "But the size of that (Boeing) battery is still substantial. If the cell casings are touching one another or have inadequate space to allow for natural convection cooling by air, then you're in for trouble."
Cairns said that he hadn’t personally seen the Boeing battery pack, however, and didn't know if Boeing engineers had provided any means for the heat to escape.
Battery experts who spoke to Design News repeatedly stressed the fact that all types of lithium-ion batteries can be safe and successful, if engineered properly. The question still being answered is whether Boeing engineers did that. “They should have stress-tested the battery with charging system as it it is installed in the 787,” Sadoway said. “I myself wouldn't fly in a 787 at this point."