Boeing 787 Battery Safety Updates: What Changes Were Made?

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Boeing 787 Dreamliner

Boeing 787 Dreamliner

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People take air safety pretty seriously, so when smoke filled the cabin of a new Boeing 787 Dreamliner aircraft a few months back, the entire fleet was quickly grounded.

It turned out to be an issue with the aircraft's lithium-ion batteries, used to power some secondary functions reducing load on the engines, and therefore fuel.

Boeing has now announced the improvements it's making to the 787's batteries--which aren't the same as those used in electric vehicles--currently undergoing strict certification testing.

According to Electric Vehicles Research, the new batteries will feature several layers of additional safety features to prevent the previous issues arising.

Each problem solved

The first layer of improvements starts right from the GS Yuasa battery factory in Japan, where new production methods and tests are in place to make sure there's as little variation as possible between individual cells in the batteries, and between the batteries themselves. Each cell will undergo ten distinct tests, including 14 days of monitored discharge cycles.

The battery's state of charge has been addressed too, allowing a lower maximum charge and higher minimum, reducing stress on the battery during charge and discharge cycles.

Batteries should now be better protected against problems with individual cells too, with an electrical insulator between cells to prevent problems spreading, and thermal insulation helps prevent the heat of cells affecting the performance of cells around it.

New wire sleeving is more chafe and heat-resistant, and new locking fasteners hold the battery's cells together. Battery casing now also features holes, letting moisture drain out the bottom, and helping a battery vent away from other units should failure occur. The stainless steel casing itself isolates the batteries from other equipment, and the battery enclosure features a vent to carry battery vapors outside the aircraft.

Testing begins

The improved batteries are now undergoing engineering testing to demonstrate the effectiveness of the changes--stressing the batteries to far greater limits than they'd experience during failure.

Testing has shown that fire can no longer occur in the battery enclosure--thanks to seals that prevent oxygen entering the enclosure--and that failures in individual cells cannot affect others--all demonstrated to gain FAA approval.

Once these tests are complete and the aircraft has gained approval, operators will finally be able to resume commercial flights.

"As soon as our testing is complete and we obtain regulatory approvals, we will be positioned to help our customers implement these changes and begin the process of getting their 787s back in the air," said Boeing Commercial Airplanes President and CEO Ray Conner.

"Passengers can be assured that we have completed a thorough review of the battery system and made numerous improvements that we believe will make it a safer, more reliable battery system."

[Hat tip: Brian Henderson]


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Comments (10)
  1. So no really "smoking gun" single source of failure. That makes it a complex story to summarize.

    What are we to make of all these small improvements? Is this Boeing just being extra careful, or were they not careful enough the first time.

  2. Battery safety is not the principle obstacle on the road to a practical electric car. We need cheaper,longer lasting (not as pronounced deterioration rates, as evident in the Model S) and
    faster recharging batteries. Achieve that and you've got yourself an EV revolution. Without it, sales will be limited to anal types, like it is today.

  3. It is true now. But if the cabins of EVs start filling with smoke like the 787, it might slow down sales a little.

  4. One rather important difference to airplanes is that when your cabin fills up with smoke in an EV, you can open the door and step out.

  5. It used to be intentional to fill a car's cabin up with smoke!

  6. Yes, Kent, thanks for your usual ignorance and arrogance. In your mind, of course, only "anal types" could ever make the decision to drive an EV.

    And we're all sure that you're the pre-eminent self-proclaimed expert on the deterioration rates of the Tesla model S battery. You know, because you've never driven one or even had one positive thing to say about the vehicle, company, or battery. Instead, you've been repeatedly proven wrong by the Model S achieving far better ranges than you predicted here.

    I'm guessing that you're trying to forget all the times you've been wrong about Tesla already. But in your mind, you know more than the "anal types" that actually drive a Model S, right?

    Is hubris your middle name?

  7. "Smoke filled the cabin" is lousy journalism. A perceptible odor of burning is what actually happened. But as they so often say, why let the truth get in the way of a good story?

  8. They never did find the smoking gun or "root cause" and their changes won't help at all. We did figure out what happened and it is a trivial fix. But we can't find anyone to listen. A lot of pressure to get back in the air with this fix as it is $50 million a week while down.

    Kind of amazing. Very simple fix. They overlooked something VERY basic to these batteries.

    Jack Rickard

  9. Then post more information here on what you believe to be the root cause, Jack. Telling the public that they are wrong and only you are right doesn't work really well when you've provided zero evidence to support anything here.

    You may be correct, but where's your empirical data?

  10. But they still haven't worked out what is causing individual cells to fail.

    And, if an individual cell overheats, insulating it from all around just means the heat inside will build up faster . . . .

    This type of Li-Ion battery: Lithium-Cobalt-Oxygen, has been rejected by all electric car manufacturers [despite its higher energy density], because the design is potentially unstable. They've all gone Lithium-Iron-Phosphate, for safety.

    This not a fix I'll fly with.

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