Boeing 787 Batteries Same As Those In Electric Cars? Umm, NO

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Boeing 787 Dreamliner

Boeing 787 Dreamliner

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Gird yourself: It's possible we're about to see a new wave of attacks on electric cars that ignore battery science.

This time the culprit is the troubled Boeing 787 Dreamliner aircraft. The FAA has grounded all 787s after a string of fires in their lithium-ion battery packs; other countries have done the same.

Which has led at least one supposedly authoritative commentator to say that Boeing is having the same battery problems as those "that have shown up in electric cars."

The problem is that the two types of batteries are, in fact, quite different.

Here's the offending quote, from Paul Czysz, professor emeritus of aeronautical engineering at St. Louis University, as cited in a Boston Herald article this morning:

"Unfortunately, what Boeing did to save weight is use the same batteries that are in the electric cars, and they are running into the same problems with the 787 as the problems that have shown up in electric cars."

The author of the Boston Herald piece then went on to describe a 2011 fire in a Chevy Volt crash-test car that occurred several days after it was wrecked and rotated through 360 degrees by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

In January 2012, the NHTSA closed an investigation into Volt fires, concluding that "no discernible defect trend exists" and that "modifications recently developed by General Motors reduce the potential for battery intrusion resulting from side impacts."

Here's the problem: While the battery cells in Boeing 787s and, say, Chevrolet Volts are both in the lithium-ion family, they use very different chemistries.

You can think of lithium-ion cells rather like motor vehicles: They all do some variation of the same thing, but there are many different types, sizes, shapes, and different technologies to make that happen. Consider the difference between gasoline and diesel engines, for example.

The cells in the 787, from Japanese company GS Yuasa, use a cobalt oxide (CoO2) chemistry, just as mobile-phone and laptop batteries do.

That chemistry has the highest energy content, but it is also the most susceptible to overheating that can produce "thermal events" (which is to say, fires).

2013 Chevrolet Volt, Catskill Mountains, Oct 2012

2013 Chevrolet Volt, Catskill Mountains, Oct 2012

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Only one electric car has been built in volume using CoO2 cells, and that's the Tesla Roadster. Only 2,500 of those cars will ever exist.

The Chevrolet Volt range-extended electric car, on the other hand, uses LG Chem prismatic cells with manganese spinel (LiMn2O4) cathodes.

While chemistries based on manganese, nickel, and other metals carry less energy per volume, they are widely viewed as less susceptible to overheating and fires.

So if you see coverage of the Boeing 787 battery fires that says anything at all about electric cars, do consider dropping a friendly note to the reporter involved.

It may be unreasonable to expect  every reporter in the world to know that "lithium-ion batteries" are a family of very different chemistries.

Science reporters, on the other hand--let alone engineering professors--really should know better.

You have been warned.


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Comments (49)
  1. Does beg the question. If the battery chemistry in the 787 is the same as the one I have in my right shirt pocket (directly over my heart), why does the plane have a problem and my shirt remains undamaged?

  2. I believe that it would have to do with the rate of energy drain of battery, no? I would suppose that the electrical demands a 787 would put on a battery (which produces energy by a CHEMICAL reaction) is MUCH greater and for MUCH longer duration than that if a smartphone sitting idle in a pocket?
    But I can't say for certain since I'm no chemical scientist or engineer or other expert. (Oh, wait... ;-) )

  3. No, drain does create heat, but once a Li-Ion or just a regual Lithium hits a certain low voltage state (2 to 2.2VDC per cell) the shutoff circuit in the PCA does not allow the battery to drain further, thus preventing a massive buildup of pressure.

  4. John: there have been several documented cases of laptops catching fire, even resulting in a Dell recall:

  5. I am well aware of them.

    The point is that for the billions of Li-Ion (cobalt) batteries sold, incidents of fires are rare.

    I am not sure if enough Li-Ion (non-cobalt) batteries have been sold to say whether or not they are a problem.

    Incidentally, the Dell battery fires that occurred were due to internal contamination in the battery with other metals. Seems like that would also be a possible problem with non-cobalt batteries as well.

  6. For the same reason that not all 787 batteries have burst into flames. Just because it hasn't happened yet...

  7. The Tesla Roadster has a thermal batterie management system to keep the batteries at optimal tempiture. So does the 787 have a tempiture control system? Also if electric cars get thrown into this mess this could be a good test to see who in the media
    has learned more about battery tech over the last year or so. Like Fox News, will they interview real battery experts on what kind of battery we're dealing with? Or are they just going to report, batteries + fires = all things with batteries are bad and scary? I'm going to sit back and see who has become better educated and who is going to go with what they know, which is nothing at all.

  8. Clearly the Boston Herald interviewed an "expert." How did that work out?

  9. It says "professor emeritus of aeronautical engineering" this "expert" isn't exactly part of the electric car or battery industry. So yes they're starting to spread misinformation but let's see in this case how widespread the misinformation gets.

  10. What problems have electric cars had with batteries causing fires? The Volt fires were caused by the battery coolant catching fire after extreme accidents, the same coolant that's used in gas cars. Considering the small number of cars, quite a few Roadsters have been wrecked and none has ever caught fire.

  11. actually, the coolant did not catch fire. the coolant leaked out, shorted out electrical circuits, and THOSE caught fire.

  12. All the more reason to think that one battery chemistry versus another is not the issue. Any type of battery can start fires.

    On the other hand, I keep hearing "leaking" related to the 787 battery issue. I wonder if that tells us anything.

  13. Actually neither of you are correct. According to Doug Parks, GM's global vehicle chief engineer for the Volt, what happened was coolant leaked, shorted out electrical circuits, which connected the poles of the battery, which led to a battery fire.

  14. The source is not suspect. It's necessary to consider the other design aspects of the pack, its mechanical design, choice of coolant (if any), as well as the packaging of the cells themselves. Tesla uses cylindrical metal casing, which is tougher, and less likely to suffer from mechanical breakdown in the event of an accident. Virtually all other commercial EVs use prismatic pouch cells. Their seams in particular are challenging to manufacture, and it's a much softer packaging material.

  15. Last year, a LEAF in Washington was hit head on by a drunk driver, who died in the crash. Then his car caught fire. The people in the LEAF escaped serious injury, and offered their fire extinguisher which was used to put out the fire in the gas car.

  16. I'm not 100% convinced by Voelcker's logic here. Seems like he is saying the batteries in EVs and the 787 have different chemistry, therefore don't lump them all together has having the same "thermal event" issues.

    But the chemistry in the 787 IS the same is what is in our cell phones, laptops, cameras, tablets, etc, and they don't suffer the same "thermal events" and "leaking" as the 787.

    I don't think this will come down to an issue of battery chemistry, in the end. It will be some details in the chargers, wiring, or environment that is making Li-Ion a problem in the 787.

  17. @John: But in fact mobile phones and laptops DO suffer thermal events occasionally. Google "flaming laptop" and you come up with stuff like this:

    It's one of the reasons airlines now require all equipment with Li-ion cells to be carried in the cabin, not in checked luggage--so that if something catches on fire, it will be seen earlier and can be extinguished.

    At a battery conference I attended 5 or 6 years ago, one production expert said that the rate of internal shorts in CoO2 cells was roughly 1 in every 5,000,000 cells--and makers hadn't been able to improve on that. May be more current data now.

  18. That doesn't really save the logic of your argument.

    A failure rate of 1 in 5,000,000 cells would make the Boeing failures much rarer than they are. I suspect that a failure rate of 1 in 5M would mean zero 787 issues given how few have been shipped.

    On the flip side, what is the failure rate in non-cobalt Li-Ion batteries? Is it better, is it worse, or is it too soon to tell (how many have shipped?).

    If you have data that shows definitive evidence of higher rates of thermal events in Li(cobalt) versus Li(non-cobalt), then I think your case is much stronger. But I don't see that data here.

    Also, I think it unlikely that Li(non-cobalt) batteries will have Zero thermal events.

  19. @John: You can't just look at battery chemistry, but need to look at the overall battery management system & the environment the batteries operate in.

    There are many specifics to using Li-Ion batteries in 787 that only Boeing engineers know design details. Being one of the first applications in commercial aviation, there are still domain specific details we are learning about.

    With portable electronics, the number of Li-Ion batteries is approaching a Billion. The number of Li-ion batteries so far used in aviation is less than thousand. (Only ~50 787's in service)

  20. John, it's incorrect to see it purely from a statistical POV, and ignore some specific operational and systems design characteristics. Consumer devices are typically not charged or discharged at aggressive rates. They are not operated in an enclosed room, where they could overheat either. The highest likelihood of a thermal event is during the charging process. The higher the charge rate, the greater the relative heat development. A phone is unlikely to burst in your pocket, unless it developed a short circuit. It's different with laptops, which are always charging, and often poorly ventilated. In the case of the Dreamliner, the cells likely overheated while charging. Since LiCO2 has a low thermal runaway threshold, they burst into flames.

  21. George, Thanks kindly for the added information.

    That makes sense.

    So indeed, this may not be simply an issue of chemistry (as Voelcker suggests) but more of an overall system issue.

  22. 1 in 5 M would be 0.2 PPM? That is lower failure rate than semicounductor, capacitors, inductors using in most electronic devices...

    I suspect it is the "battery management" system at fault or inproper managing of the battery that cause the problem.

  23. It should be noted that one of the observations with Boeing 787 battery incidents is the "venting" of electrolyte! The electrolyte associated with this model is much more flameable than used in vehicles, or modern portable devices.

    The Boeing 787 entered service in Dec 2011, so is interesting that ths issue is coming to light a year later. From a speculation point of view there are many potential causes: pressure cycling as the airliner climbs & descends many time a day to/from 10km (6 miles) in height, extreme temperatures from -60° to +40°C, issues with battery management circuits, or software, … , etc.

    The battery OEM, GS Yuasa also supplies batteries for numerous uses, including satellites & the International Space Station.

  24. Even in the test phase of the 787, they did an emergency landing for smoke/fire in the battery compartment area.

  25. "The electrolyte associated with this model is much more flameable than used in vehicles, or modern portable devices."

    That is an interesting claim.

    So even if it is Li (cobalt) you are suggesting that the electrolyte is different than what is in most consumer cells and more flammable.

  26. Satellites have been using LiCoO2 batteries since their invention and they have not had such issues. There must be some specific reason for the failures of the GS Yuasa batteries in the 787. It's not necessarily the chemistry.

  27. Aviation has very stringent standards and I'm stunned that Boeing would not have the safest and toughest batteries/chemistry and systems available installed in their newest plane (I hear fire on a plane is worse than snakes). I realize there is a capacity issue here and that the new Dreamliner needs all the juice it can get when the engines aren't spinning but WHY aren’t temperature controlled, crash tested Volt battery packs (or reasonable facsimile) being used on the 787? Aviation should be on the cutting edge of safety not the auto industry, someone at Boeing ‘got some ‘splaining to do’

  28. Yep, 'spescially since we have no idea what's on 'da planes! Hard for me ta speculate with essentially zero information.

  29. ", from Paul Czysz, professor emeritus of aeronautical engineering at St. Louis University, "

    What makes this guy an expert? He got his degree from Parks College and used to work MD (which Boeing destroyed as competition). Also, he is an AE/ME professor and what makes him an expert on battery? Just b/c he had working experience on Airplanes (of which the company went bankrupt)?

    Sometimes, we have "experts" blasting their ignorance on airwave that end up as "truth" or "facts".

    Until the investigation is over, we don't know for sure what was the cause of the fire.

    Can Li battery start a fire? Absolutely! if it is used incorrectly or manufactured incorrectly. In fact, any high energy density product can, jet fuels and hydrulic fluids.

  30. While we attempt to get smug about EV batteries being safe:

    Charles Whalen:

    "LiMn2O4 [Nissan LEAF / GM Volt] reaches a peak combustion rate of 2.5C/min, while LiFePO4 reaches a peak combustion rate of 3.4C/min. Contrast those to the combustion rates of the batteries that Tesla uses -- in the Roadster, LiCoO2 reaches a peak combustion rate of 360C/min, and in the Model S, LiNi.8Co.15Al.05O2 reaches a peak combustion rate of 280C/min..."

  31. "LiCoO2 and LiNi.8Co.15Al.05O2 are so unsafe -- the most volatile of all the lithium chemistries, by an order of magnitude of more than 100X (I gave the combustion rates above) over the two safest lithium chemistries, LiMn2O4 and LiFePO4 -- that no large, established automaker could afford to take that kind of risk, to use either of those two chemistries (LiCoO2 or LiNi.8Co.15Al.05O2) in a mass-market commercial EV. A large OEM like GM or Ford has just too much at stake and too much to lose to take a risk like that. Only a struggling small start-up like Tesla, which is an extremely risky venture to begin with, on the perilous edge of survival, can afford to take an enormous risk like that."

  32. @Tony: Very nice quotes ... can you provide a link, so readers can see the original(s), please?

  33. John, I think it is coming from a gm-volt forum posting:

  34. The objectivity of the source is suspect, but the numbers should still be verifiable.

    On the ground though, Tesla have never had a battery fire while the Volt has. This is despite choosing a chemistry that's supposedly 100x less thermally stable.

  35. So, what kind of Li battery did Fisker Karma use? or the one that GM tested (and exploded) on the upcoming Spark EV?

  36. The Fisker Karma used cells from A123 Systems, which is now in reorganization after bankruptcy and is likely to be sold. I don't know whether the Karma cells are the same cells as those fitted to the Spark EV.

  37. Yes, I unearthed these quotes last year and posted them to MNL when I was doing research on the LMO chemistry used in the LEAF and the Volt. Charles Whalen is a quite knowledgeable in this area, although my local EAA chapter wanted to engage him as a speaker for an event, we did not have much luck contacting him. Both the Spark and the Karma appear to be using A123 LFP (LiFePO4) cells, which has slightly higher peak combustion rate then the cells used in the Volt and the LEAF. Keep in mind that in cars with a TMS, any defect to that system can lead to overheating, and leaked coolant has the potential of corroding cell seams, and be a contributing risk.

  38. These comments about Tesla are rather uneducated, as it ignores the battery temperature management monitoring and measures Tesla is using int he design of it packs. For example liquid cooling, physical arrangements (using the 18650 format) which keep any issues with one cell form affecting other cells, automatic power limiting in connection with temperature monitoring, and so on). Tesla is also using extensive, industry leading testing facilities and laboratories to ensure the effectiveness of its approach.

  39. Well, Tesla uses a battery temperature control because it is required for safety. The LEAF, in contrast, can get away with none of that and still have a mostly safe battery.

    Naturally, no battery temperature control on the LEAF creates a new problem with LEAF batteries in hot climates that lose their capacity more quickly than those in cooler areas.

    I drive the Tesla... almost! 2012 Toyota Rav4, Telsa motor serial number 331.

  40. Great information.

    So this means that the cobalt li ion battery in my pocket will burn fast if anything happens to it(thermal events). I guess the reason it is not much of a problem is that its charging is well managed and thus thermal events do not happen.

  41. I'd have hoped that this article would mention that the number of electric cars is already in the volume in which ICEs (gasoline cars) would have had several fires, statistically. However except for the Fisker Karma (where fires were unrelated to the batteries), there are no known cases where customer-delivered electric cars had fires. This includes the Tesla Roadster, which also, by itself, has surpassed the number of car-years in which gasoline cars would have had fires. AFAIK, no electric car from Tesla or Nissan (pure electrics) had any fires at all.

  42. P.S.: This excludes so-called "conversions", non-production EVs, or actually not even EVs originally, but converted ICEs (gasoline cars). Those did have a number of fires (for various reasons).

  43. "problems that have shown up in electric cars" -- pardon me?

    Let's review production EV/PHV fires so far shall we:
    * Chevy Volt: short-circuit 3 weeks after crash-test caused by leaked coolant crystalizing and NHTSA failure to follow post-crash procedures.
    * BYD e6: short outside battery compartment after 100mph+ collision.
    * Fisker Karma: two fires in engine bay, unrelated to batteries.
    * Fisker Karma: short in electronics after immersion in seawater.

    Extremely good track record if you ask me. No fire ever started in the battery, nor was their chemistry relevant at all btw. Heck, the stupid lead-acid one in ICEs causes problems far more often. And that's nothing compared to house wiring and appliances (140'000 cases/year in the US)...

  44. I've known at least 3 people in my (relatively small) City who had their internal combustion engine - powered cars burst into flames. Not after being wrecked by the way, just in day-to-day driving.

    Unlike that one wrecked and rotated Volt, none of those cars made news. ;)

  45. When I worked in western Africa, it was common to see gasoline trucks burning on the side of the road, sometimes blowing up and killing everything and everybody around them. Then the charred remains would be left for months or years.

    I've definitely heard of 12v lead acids blowing up, usually when jump starting something... backwards.

  46. I had a 12 Volt battery blow up in a car while I was driving it years ago. It was a really loud bang and sprayed acid all over the inside of the engine compartment stripping paint from the metal.

    The regulator apparently failed and was applying 17 VDC directly to the battery. Overcharged, outgassing hydrogen, then bang. Thanks the engineers for putting it on the other side of the firewall (unlike my Prius that has the battery in the passenger compartment).

    Surprisingly, I still was able to continue to drive home.

  47. It is looking more likely that there was an internal short in the battery - a manufacturing flaw in the battery:


  48. You stated, "That chemistry has the highest energy content, but it is also the most susceptible to overheating that can produce "thermal events" (which is to say, fires)."

    This is not correct. Not all thermal events produce so much as a bit of flame. I've conducted many dozens of severe tests in which cells underwent strong exothermic decomposition with large volumes of gas venting and not had as much as a single bit of flame/fire/plasma etc.

    There is a difference, and a profound difference between a "thermal event" and a battery fire. Many "thermal events" lead to fire if there is an ignition source (and there often can be), but it doesn't mean there isn't still a clear separation between thermal events and fire events.

  49. just thought you should know-
    cobalt oxide is (CoO)proper name oxocobalt
    - and has many other common names such as cobalt monoxide
    cobalt dioxygen on the other hand has the chemical formula (CoO2)
    -ref. chemspider database

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