Dreamliner runaway battery photo on ANA 787 published
The semantic and technical differences between a fire and the smoking remains of lithium-ion battery located directly under a 787 cockpit are probably going to be lost on air travellers after the release of a disturbing image in Japan.
While images of charred lithium ion batteries in Boeing 787s may not add anything to the technical discussion of the Dreamliner’s apparently botched design and certification when it comes to things electric, they are a PR and marketing nightmare.
Japan’s aviation safety authority has released the photo at top of page of the state of the battery which was installed under the cockpit of the All Nippon Airways 787 which made an emergency landing during a domestic flight on 16 January, causing the airline, the safety authority, and eventually, America’s FAA, to ground all Dreamliners pending identification of the failure process and its rectification.
The point about the photo is that it illustrates the unsatisfactory degree to which Boeing management’s overt and covert defence of the safety of its using the most unstable version of a lithium battery known to science in the new airliner departs from the information being circulated by safety authorities.
The Japan Transport Safety Board makes a number of interim points. This battery, unlike one that burst into flames in a Japan Airlines 787 earlier in January, did not actually ignite. It experienced a thermal runaway, as a result of a build up of heat, yet the materials affected did not start burning.
While the semantics might escape the casual observer the safety investigator said:-
“The battery was destroyed in a process called thermal runaway, in which the heat builds up to the point where it becomes uncontrollable.
“But it is still not known what caused the uncontrollable high temperature”.
In simple language, uncontrollable rises in temperature will if uncontrolled most likely result in a fire, including one that can burn through structural composites and alloys, and prove almost uncontrollable by fire fighters, even on the ground.
It took a Boston airport fire brigade detachment 99 minutes to put out the Japan Airlines fire using equipment unavailable if the airliner was hours away from an emergency landing strip in the high arctic or north Pacific, which that particular flight had only recently traversed before the fire broke out after landing.
The Japan air safety investigator said the wire supposed to ground or discharge static electricity build ups in the battery had been severed meaning it had experienced abnormal levels of current.
However as also confirmed by the early stage of the US incident investigation into the Japan Airlines fire, this large lithium-ion battery had not experienced a voltage surge, and had so far as flight data recordings could tell, had been operating normally immediately before the emergency landing.
Expect the news release in Japan to cause more tension between those who want the 787s to fly again pending a full understanding of the causes and cures in these incidents, and independent safety investigators who will recommend to safety regulators like the FAA a continuation of the grounding.
Ben Sandilands has reported and analysed the mechanical mobility of humanity since late 1960 - the end of the age of great scheduled ocean liners and coastal steamers and the start of the jet age. He’s worked in newspapers, radio and TV in a wide range of roles as a journalist at home and abroad for 56 years, the last 18 freelance.