The Commercial Appeal

Lithium batteries OK with safeguards

NTSB won’t ‘categorica­lly’ ban all plane uses

- By Joan Lowy

WASHINGTON — The use of lithium-ion batteries to power aircraft systems isn’t necessaril­y unsafe despite a battery fire in one Boeing 787 Dreamliner and smoke in another, but manufactur­ers need to build in reliable safeguards, the nation’s top aviation safety investigat­or said Wednesday.

National Transporta­tion Safety Board chairman Deborah Hersman said she doesn’t want to “categorica­lly” rule out the use of lithium-ion batteries to power aircraft systems, even though it’s clear that safeguards failed in the case of a Japan Airlines 787 that had a battery fire while parked at Boston’s Logan Internatio­nal Airport last month.

“Obviously what we saw in the 787 battery fire in Boston shows us there were some risks that were not mitigated, that were not addressed,” Hersman told reporters in an interview. The fire was “not what we would have expected to see in a brand new battery in a brand new airplane,” she said.

The 787 is the first airliner to make extensive use of lithium batteries. Aircraft makers view lithium batteries, which are lighter and can store more energy than other types of batteries of an equivalent size, as an important way to save on fuel costs. The Airbus A350, expected to be ready next year, will also make extensive use of lithiumion batteries. Manufactur­ers are also looking to retrofit existing planes, replacing other types of batteries with lithiums.

But lithium batteries are more likely to short-circuit and start a fire than other batteries if they are damaged, if there is a manufactur­ing flaw or if they are exposed to excessive heat.

The board is still weeks away from determinin­g the cause of the Jan. 7 battery fire, Hersman said.

Investigat­ors are also looking into the special conditions the Federal Aviation Administra­tion required Boeing to meet in order to use lithiumion batteries to power the 787’s electrical systems, she said.

A government-industry advisory board that works closely with the FAA issued testing standards for lithium batteries used in aircraft operations several months after the agency had approved a separate testing regime for the 787’s batteries.

“What happens is that when an aircraft is certified, it basically gets locked into the standards that were in existence at the time,” Hersman said. Oftentimes tougher standards will come along later, but aren’t applied to already-approved aircraft designs.

Nine days after the battery fire in Boston, another battery overheated on an All Nippon Airways 787, leading to an emergency landing in Japan. The same day, FAA officials ordered U.S. carriers with 787s — there’s only one, United Airlines, with six planes — to ground the planes.

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