NASA to Use Dreamliner Lithium-Ion Battery Packs to Power ISS

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May 30, 2013

The Boeing 787 Dreamliner (which we've discussed before) has been called the most fuel-efficient airliner traversing the skies. It sports a composite material body and substantial battery power for operating most of its flight systems. Unfortunately, fires involving onboard lithium-ion battery packs in January caused one jet to make an emergency landing in Japan and another to abort flight plans while on the ground in Boston.

These fires prompted the immediate grounding of 787s. The Federal Aviation Administration has worked with authorities in the US and Japan to investigate GS Yuasa Corp., the Japanese firm that manufactures Boeing's lithium-ion battery pack. The fires turned out to be a result of thermal runaway; heat from a single overheated battery cell leaked on to other cells, causing the meltdown to spread. A redesigned Boeing battery pack that accounted for thermal isolation issues underwent test flights this month to assure the FAA and the public that its Dreamliners would soon be flying again.

Throughout the 787 battery mess, NASA has held on to a contract with Boeing for the design of a lithium-ion battery pack to replace aging NiMH batteries on the International Space Station (ISS). Though the decision is controversial, NASA gave the green light to move forward with the deal, citing close work with the battery subcontractor Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne.

Josh Byerly, a NASA spokesman, spoke last month at the Johnson Spaceflight Center about the decision to continue with the project. His main talking points revolved around the superiority of lithium-ion technology over the old battery pack and the benefits for the ISS: cutting launch payloads nearly in half and ultimately reducing launch costs.

When asked about the dangers of battery cell failure, Byerly said the ISS battery design prevents the propagation of a runaway thermal event. Testing of the new battery design showed that, even if a cell were to catch fire, it would be completely contained and controllable. Byerly also said that, unlike with the Dreamliner, the ISS battery is installed outside the cabin on an unpressurized structural hoist.

Last month, the FAA approved Boeing's new battery design, giving NASA the last bit of defense it needed for use of the novel technology on the ISS. Since then, Dreamliners have taken to the skies once again.

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