Bad News for Boeing: The Dreamliner's Battery Is a Nightmare

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Boeing's (NYSE: BA  ) 787 Dreamliner just returned to the skies after a four-month grounding, but already there's trouble. The director of the Airline Pilots' Association of Japan, Toshikazu Nagasawa, said that pilots weren't satisfied with the changes Boeing made to it's lithium-ion battery and are concerned that they won't receive appropriate in-flight warnings if there's an issue. Some scientists and battery experts are also expressing concern about the safety of Boeing's battery.

Officials at All Nippon Airways and Japan Airlines said they're satisfied with Boeing's changes and have resumed flights, but investors may have cause for concern knowing that that the pilots -- the people whose lives depend on the safety of Boeing's battery -- aren't satisfied. Here's what you need to know. 

Source: H. Michael Miley, Wikimedia Commons. 

Are the issues in the past?
In March, Japanese pilots raised 30 safety concerns about the Dreamliner. One of their major concerns was that they didn't think Boeing had provided enough proof that the 787 would be safe to fly if the batteries failed. They also expressed concern that the warning indicator for a battery malfunction didn't indicate the severity of the problem.

More recently, the pilots' group expressed concern that Boeing didn't figure out what caused the problems with the batteries in the first place and is now downplaying the battery's necessity for flight. Consequently, the group challenged Boeing to conduct flight tests without the lithium-ion battery to prove its safety.  

Boeing's vice president and the chief project engineer for the 787, Mike Sinnett, addressed these issues by saying the Dreamliner has backup systems that allow it to continue flying if the batteries fail, and that the warning indicators were ranked by severity, but these assurances have done little to quell the pilots' concerns.

Scientists add fuel to the fire
Battery experts and scientists have also publicly questioned the safety of Boeing's battery. Elton Cairns, a Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory professor and battery technology expert, said: "I'm shocked that Boeing was willing to stake its reputation on these batteries. Even with the modifications, the individual cells of the battery are crammed too closely together and feature an internal chemistry that's far too volatile."  

More pointedly, Michel Armand, a professor of chemistry at the University of Picardie and a research director at the French government's Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, told Barron's: "Using these batteries in planes makes no sense, with all the lives potentially at stake. These batteries are unpredictable and prone to thermal runaway and fires."  

Fires, fires, everywhere
Boeing's 787 Dreamliner isn't alone when it comes to problems with its lithium-ion battery. In 2006, Meggitt (LSE: MGGT  ) subsidiary Securaplane Technologies -- which incidentally builds the charger for Boeing's battery -- suffered millions in damages when a lithium-ion battery exploded during testing and burned an Arizona facility to the ground. 

Further, in both 2010 and 2011, 747 cargo planes carrying pallets of lithium-ion batteries crashed because of a fire, killing the crew.

In neither case could authorities determine a cause for the fire.

In March of this year, Mitsubishi Motors reported two incidents involving a lithium-ion battery. These batteries were manufactured by Mitsubishi's venture with GS Yuasa, the maker of Boeing's lithium-ion battery, although the batteries themselves are not the same. Mitsubishi reported that the problem was caused by contaminants getting into the battery cells during the screening process. 

Fires ahead for Boeing?
Separately, these incidents are scary but manageable. But when you combine these accidents and factor in the pilots' concerns, you get the feeling that lithium-ion batteries are anything but safe. Underscoring this point is the decision by EADS' Airbus to pull the plug on putting lithium-ion batteries in its A350 plane, citing "immaturity of lithium-ion-battery technology." If the Dreamliner's battery really is fixed, this plane could prove to be quite profitable for Boeing. However, given all the issues it's had in the past, and the uncertainty of the battery, investors would do well to keep an eye on the Dreamliner -- especially considering Boeing's stock has risen and fallen right along with the Dreamliner.

Boeing operates as a major player in a multitrillion-dollar market in which the opportunities and responsibilities are absolutely massive. However, emerging competitors and the company's execution problems have investors wondering whether Boeing will live up to its shareholder responsibilities. In our premium research report on the company, two of The Motley Fool's best minds on industrials have collaborated to provide investors with the key, must-know issues surrounding Boeing. They'll be updating the report as key news hits, so don't miss out -- simply click here now to claim your copy today.

Read/Post Comments (33) | Recommend This Article (22)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On June 08, 2013, at 11:02 AM, emjayay wrote:

    Dear Katie: "it's" is a contraction of "it is". "its" indicates ownership.

    In other breaking news, "there" is a place, "they're" is a contraction of "they are," and "their" indicates ownership.

    Most of us learned this stuff in the third or fourth grade.

  • Report this Comment On June 08, 2013, at 11:31 AM, puffn1x wrote:

    1200 lbs of these lithium ion batteries are in a TESLA and are dangerous. No more on the road until crash testing is complete. They will explode!

  • Report this Comment On June 08, 2013, at 12:16 PM, LadyMantle wrote:

    If they have other backup systems, why do they need the lithium ion batteries in the first place? What is the function of the Li-ion battery on the plane? It sounds like it is a fuel saving device same as on the hybrid vehicles. It could be at high altitude these devices do not work well and need better shielding. Just a thought.

  • Report this Comment On June 08, 2013, at 12:22 PM, stinkapooch wrote:

    Sounds like someone is trying to manipulate Boeing's stock. I'm shocked to hear that a French government scientist and Airbus think these batteries will result in Boeing Dreamliners falling from the sky. After all their only concerned is the safety of the air traveler.

  • Report this Comment On June 08, 2013, at 12:28 PM, rudolfvs wrote:

    Boeing is not prepared to face the issue; it is just applying band aid.

    I fear this will not end well.

  • Report this Comment On June 08, 2013, at 12:31 PM, HgldrFool wrote:

    I have to wonder if these Japanese pilots who are worried about the 787 safety are getting their "news" from the general media instead of from Boeing. The fixes for the battery included redesigning thermal management circuitry using input from GS Yuasa, the battery supplier. The general media seems to always report that the only fix was a steel box with outside vents. Other critical parts were improved and redesigned.

    What I find odd is that the Motley Fool is interviewing people who may not be familiar with the actual problem: Elton Cairns, a Berkeley professor and battery technology expert. Michel Armand, a professor of chemistry at Picardie. Who ARE these people?

    I wrote the original spec for the 787 battery charger; Two doors down the hall from me is the engineer who designed the second 787 battery charger for Securaplane. Other colleagues of mine were all involved in the 787 battery. No one has interviewed us. Odd.......

  • Report this Comment On June 08, 2013, at 1:18 PM, Jmsb526 wrote:

    If emjayay is going to post comments that criticize the article's author for her language skills, then perhaps he should be educated in the area of punctuation.

    It's very common knowledge that a period goes before the closing quotation mark when a quoted word ends a sentence, not after the quotation mark.

    Correctly punctuated: "It's" is a contraction of "it is."

  • Report this Comment On June 08, 2013, at 1:40 PM, DNMay wrote:

    A balanced report would have pointed out that airline pilots' associations traditionally position themselves at the "safety extreme" end of the spectrum because it reinforces their membership's support for the association. The manufacturer (Boeing) has absolutely nothing to gain to introduce an unsafe product, and already leans in the safety direction as far as it should. The certification authorities in the U.S., Japan, etc., have agreed with the safety of the fix. The accident investigation boards aren't exactly complaining.

    But Katie is right that the issue can affect the stock. That's mainly because of the tendency of journalists to jump on anything that looks sensational, and claim more knowledge even than the experts. Isn't this such a case?

  • Report this Comment On June 08, 2013, at 2:02 PM, BeckNader wrote:

    I would rather trust the edorsement the FAA gave to Boeing's solution for the batteries and think that those were very serious fixes. The impulsive and frequent non technical statements tend to disrupt rather than help the flying public tranquility.

    I do believe Boeing came to a very solid solution and would have no other question about it.

  • Report this Comment On June 08, 2013, at 2:04 PM, foollipGaley wrote:

    For the learned "Jmsb526", in knowledge of most common construction, his sentence also, is to end with a period; and so, would better reading thusly: Correctly punctuated: "It's" is a contraction of "it is.".

    Were he writing for a computer, not in anywise would he have omitted the closing period, . . . not the only punctuation omission which our dear "Jmsb526" made but, that's enough, . . .

  • Report this Comment On June 08, 2013, at 2:11 PM, Karyalli2000 wrote:

    Hi "emjayay," periods go inside quotes. If you're going to be a grammar nazi, you'd better be perfect.

  • Report this Comment On June 08, 2013, at 2:15 PM, muinaru wrote:

    After working in corporate america in management for 30+ years, I do not trust the US owned companies. There is a fundamental difference in priorities and culture between US companies and Japanese companies who embrace the Deming concepts. Deming came back to US in 1980, and at 80 years old did not have much patience for top leadership ignorance. After 30 years to embrace his methodologies, I would rate us maybe a "D". This isnt good enough. I will refrain from flying on these aircraft. I intend to enjoy my retirement.

  • Report this Comment On June 08, 2013, at 2:51 PM, donmarconc8211 wrote:

    I am following closely the progression of live fire testing being conducted on all types of lithium ion batteries.This testing is being done to validate new standards for protection of batteries in warehouses and manufacturing plants to minimize risk to the facilities and personnel. So far, the testing has shown that fire protection systems must react and control the fire before the battery electrolyte becomes involved in the fire since the liquid electrolyte is flammable. It is also well established that the battery has the necessary fuel, oxygen and heat (ignition source) to support a fire. The controls used on the aircraft are designed to reduce the probability of a fire, but the chances of fire cannot be reduced to zero. Thus, a 'control' methodology is needed since the aircraft can be well away from being able to make an emergency landing when the battery crisis develops. Simply stated, the battery compartment must in all cases contain or suppress the fire so there is no in flight fire concern if a thermal runaway occurs in flight. Next, the pilots must be able to fly for an extended period of time without one lost battery compartment due to a fire. This would require that the batteries be safely separated. My hope that this feature is already in place for other safety and back up reasons on the 787. This is similar to how the engine design safety is engineered since after all, there is fuel on every aircraft flight and plenty of ignition sources. The difference is that the sources are all made by design to be external to the fuel tank whereas the fuel, ignition and oxygen are all present in the battery. This is why so many fires have occurred with lithium ion technology.

  • Report this Comment On June 08, 2013, at 2:53 PM, oliverbd wrote:

    When will people realize the problem is from the quality of the lithium. Most of the lithium in every battery in the world came from lithium from brine. brine lithium has many impurities and issues. hard rock mining went away for many, many years because they could not compete with brine in price. now that the price is up there hard rock mining is making a comeback and will be the lithium of choice for apple, boeing, defense contractors, governments, etc and lithium from brine will be used for ceramics and glass and other low tech uses. Talison lithium in Australia had a bidding war between Rockwood Lithium and the Chinese and of course the Chinese won.Talison was and is the only hard rock lithium producer in the world. Canada Lithium will be next but they have had delays opening the new $300m plant.

  • Report this Comment On June 08, 2013, at 3:40 PM, donmarconc8211 wrote:

    The problem causing fires in batteries, however, is the flammable electrolyte, something that is not present in other battery technology. The best solution would be to develop fire inhibited electroyte additives or an entirely non-combustible electrolyte but the problem thus far has been the batteries do not have the same life span or loose other attractive characteristics when the electrolyte has been replaced. Frankly, it is the 'green' drive that is pushing harder now than the 'safety' drive and this I'm afraid is causing many to increase their risk threshold for the sake of being green.

  • Report this Comment On June 08, 2013, at 3:48 PM, MFMic wrote:

    I suspect Boeing, at this moment, is redesigning the battery system using a design that was probably discarded in favor of the lithium ion battery or possibly doing a total redesign. I doubt that they are doing a total redesign but are dusting off or asking the engineers that had submitted the loosing design to update it. I predict that shortly possibly within a year's time frame airlines will be offered a replacement that superceedes the previous system. Eventually, the lithium ion will be a no way interchangeable part with the new part and not be available as a replacement part. All this will be happening quietly in the background without any fanfare unless there continues to be voices that need to be addressed. Then perhaps there will be a media statement. Once the replacement system is tested and available a service bulletin might be sent to the airlines.

  • Report this Comment On June 08, 2013, at 3:49 PM, rotorhead1871 wrote:

    agree, it should be replaced with a Ni Cd....ASAP, it would save weight(over the li-ion with its armored box) and is much more reliable.....

    they need to certify a new Ni Cd NOW..........

  • Report this Comment On June 08, 2013, at 4:22 PM, MFMic wrote:

    It'll probably be NiH not NiCd or what the A350 choose over the Li.

  • Report this Comment On June 08, 2013, at 4:31 PM, Doug63892 wrote:

    I work for Boeing. We have the engineering might to solve ANY electrical/ mechanical problem.

  • Report this Comment On June 08, 2013, at 5:06 PM, Rotomoley wrote:

    It is concerning the root cause was never found

    and they are implementing a solution based

    on consideration of everything they know

    could go wrong. So that certainly leaves the

    unknown. Still, the article is a bit sensational.

    The only way to know is to see what happens.

  • Report this Comment On June 08, 2013, at 5:25 PM, alcast86 wrote:

    Quite surprised at this recent development regarding the quality and functionality of these Boeing Lithium-ion batteries.

    Not surprised to hear what the pilots have to say about the recent return to service of the 787 Jetliners with the "improved" li-ion batteries.

    I read all the comments to this most recent turn of events and only wish to know what TESLA means?(earlier puffn1x comment)

  • Report this Comment On June 08, 2013, at 5:35 PM, AjaxofTelamon wrote:

    I followed this story for a while and my take was that the Lithium battery problem was an excuse for something more serious like a structural problem for the 787. And this because of reports in the media that one or more 787s landed with broken cockpit windows along with statements from Boeing that the batteries are not needed for flying the plane.

    So, if the batteries are not needed for flying, why did they ground the entire fleet of 787s?

    Now the Japanese pilots are asking for "proof that the 787 would be safe to fly if the batteries failed." In other words, the contradiction is back.

    I didn't know about the 747s cargo planes carrying pallets of lithium-ion batteries crashing in 2010 and 2011 - and this at this point puts the Lithium batteries under a different light.

    A well written story - Thank you.

  • Report this Comment On June 08, 2013, at 5:42 PM, NoFoolHere123 wrote:

    I don't know nothing about a plane design but I have used plenty of devices that use and still using lithium-ion battery. These batteries don't last and/or barely last within a year especially when temperature rises.

    It is so incredible that Boeing would bet their company' reputation and income on the often fragile batteries.

    Another failure no matter how small it is, ANA and JAP will switch to Airbus. Up til now, Boeing owns the japan market so Boeing better prays and prays hard that luck is on their side. Because only luck will save Boeing.

  • Report this Comment On June 08, 2013, at 6:18 PM, carlmosconi wrote:

    Stop the scaremongering!

  • Report this Comment On June 08, 2013, at 6:23 PM, DNMay wrote:

    The title of the article is a disgrace that Motley Fool shouldn't give their name to. The only NEW thing that's happened since the fix was approved and implemented is that a pilots' UNION has tried to milk what they can from the subject. Katie's naivete played right into their hands.

    The original battery system saved weight compared with older technology. That might not be true with the fix implemented. Yes, once there is a better understanding of what went wrong, an improved and lighter system may emerge. Meanwhile, the fix addresses every conceivable battery failure mode, which is why it makes the system SAFE.

  • Report this Comment On June 08, 2013, at 6:44 PM, emjayay wrote:

    From Grammar Girl:

    "In Britain, they use rules that require the writer to determine whether the period or comma belong with the quotation or are part of the larger sentence. It appears that early champions of this logical system were H.W. Fowler and F.G. Fowler who wrote the classic 1906 British usage guide The King’s English."

    And they invented it. That's why it's called English.

  • Report this Comment On June 08, 2013, at 7:10 PM, SimonVimal wrote:

    I question the safety of Japanese engineered cars. Who holds the record for safety recalls...Toyota followed by Honda it is!

    The Japanese use Takada air bags that are junk! Toyota uses Chinese steel in their cars, which results in failures for the control arms, frames and spare tire securing chains.

    They have power window switches that catch on fire, steering column splines that fail, transmission shaft failures (Honda)....I could go on for the next 10,000 words.

  • Report this Comment On June 08, 2013, at 10:20 PM, JohnNKali wrote:

    OMG! If men were meant to fly, we would have wings! Of course Airbus thinks it is incredibly dangerous. And Li-Ion batteries no less. Why, the ones in my phone fail constantly! Well, not in the last year. Well, not in the last two years. Well, not ever. But I've heard of it! Yes! Yes! I've heard of it! Of course, I heard about it on the internet, where bigfoot, aliens from other planets, and all sorts of monsters from Grimm are discussed in detail!

    Maybe we should adopt the ideas of that (NTSB?) guy who wanted 1000% assurance that the plane was safe. I only want to know of anything that is 101% safe.

    This world has too many idiots that can type.

  • Report this Comment On June 08, 2013, at 11:44 PM, donmarconc8211 wrote:

    Yes, JohnNKali, you are correct there are many idiots that can type. I just wish you would do some research and understand the topic BEFORE you type anything about which you have no understanding. If you had any idea of the fire hazards of Li-Ion batteries and the challenges they are creating for the fire protection community you would not be making such ridiculous comments. Indeed Boeing has made improvements to its Li-Ion battery system controls and has engineered an enclosure and venting system. There are still some of us, knowing the extreme hazards of these batteries, that feel that methods to 'prevent' a battery incident is not sufficient on an aircraft. Control of such an incident must be proven since a fire could occur when a flight is far from being able to land safely during a long haul flight.

  • Report this Comment On June 09, 2013, at 1:46 AM, donlargo wrote:

    Yes, li-on batteries are problematic, but you folks back home shouldn't discount an obvious ulterior motive on the part of the Japanese Keiretsu: the annihilation of American business.

    Having lived in Japan for the better part of the past seventeen years, I can assure you that there is no depth to which Japanese business will not go in order to promote their long-term goal of--well, I'll let you figure that out for yourselves. Let it suffice to remind you how easily Boeing could crash and burn if the dreamliner were not to sell and how tempting that might be to certain industries in Japan. TV, VCR, Washer/drier, remember it and I'll name it.

    So just don't lose sight of who actually made that battery.

  • Report this Comment On June 09, 2013, at 10:06 AM, moonwatcher2001 wrote:

    I followed this story in Aviation Week & Space Technology magazine. Yes, Lithium Ion batteries CAN be dangerous, but other aircraft, notably the F-22, uses them (from a different manufacturer) and they have had no similar problems. So the story isn't that ALL Lithum ion batteries are dangerous, but rather SOME can be. Boeing had done a good job in calling in many expert physicists and electrical engineers to overcome this problem and to get it certified by the FAA. This battery issue is now behind them, but they have other issues to work out such as the Auxiliary Power Units needing maintenance due to failing early. Only time will tell if Boeing can work out these other issues (while keeping an eye on better, longer term battery fixes).

  • Report this Comment On June 09, 2013, at 3:56 PM, luckyagain wrote:

    Like almost everyone else making comments, I really know almost nothing about the batteries and if the fix is sufficient. I cannot imagine that Boeing would be willing to allow a 787 to crash because of these batteries. If a crash does happen because of these batteries, then Boeing will probably go into bankruptcy. Talk about betting your company. Hopefully Boeing has enough integrity to only let these planes fly after fixing this problem. If not, then the CEO, Board of Directors and upper management should indicted for manslaughter and sent to jail for years.

  • Report this Comment On June 09, 2013, at 7:22 PM, wwward1948 wrote:

    This battery is crucial! It powers the little light that tells the flight attendant that you need another drink.

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