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back to article Boeing bent over for new probe as 787 batteries vent fluid, start to MELT

The US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has announced a new investigation after the batteries in a Japanese Boeing 787 started smoking and partially melted. On Tuesday a Boeing 787 Dreamliner operated by Japan Airlines was parked at Tokyo's Narita airport when a battery pack began emitting white smoke and a mechanic …

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FAIL

Gifts from the Gods (while walking in the meadows)

Well, bird poop is pretty bad, but I really wouldn't like any of that electrolyte tumbling down on my head :)

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Gifts from the Gods (while walking in the meadows)

You have to be nuts to fly Screamliner at the moment. It's only been pure luck that a plane full of people havn't yet been turned into a tubular KFC bucket!

I will stick to Airbus if i want to fly the latest and greatest - and live to tell the tale....

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Re: Gifts from the Gods (while walking in the meadows)

Sadly, I have to agree. I have no problem with Boeing aircraft in general, but the 787 is starting to shape up as one of those planes that go down in history for its failures. For competition reasons I hope it doesn't do the same to Boeing as the Comet did to de Havilland, but it is going to require a big bale-out if (when) a 787 falls out of the sky.

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Re: Gifts from the Gods (while walking in the meadows) B vs B

Boeing may also require a bail out, too. Both our spellings work, but I find yours more appropos because crating out is what will be needed if one of those 787s crashes and becomes a sausage-making coffing stuffer.

BTW, is the electolytic solution salty enough? If so, the ravages of the inspectors crawling deep could...feel...like... Ass sa(u)lt and battery...

Anyway, when the both the planes in this class were competing earlier on, it seemed at times like a race to be the first to fail, given all the negative press and occasional but significant and costly (time and money) setbacks each was experiencing.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Gifts from the Gods (while walking in the meadows)

" I hope it doesn't do the same to Boeing as the Comet did to de Havilland"

There'd be a certain irony if it did, though.

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Re: Gifts from the Gods (while walking in the meadows)

My brother in law was an airline mechanic - He called Airbus "Scarebus", and didn't like flying on them.

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Re: Gifts from the Gods (while walking in the meadows)

It's interesting how definitions of "failure" has changed over aircraft generations. Compare the Comet and the DC-10 to the 787. The DC-10 liked to blow out a cargo door and cut hydraulic lines. The Comet liked to disintegrate from fatigue failures. The 787 has a replaceable battery problem. The number of deaths from design flaws in modern airliners is a lot lower than 20th Century airliners, especially the airliners developed in the 1950s to 1970s.

The body count paid by those earlier generations of aircraft means that today the media has to turn a smoking battery into a moment of drama (because the wars around the world got boring) rather than explosive decompression or turbine disk failures sending hundreds of people screaming to their deaths.

The 787 might get tarred and feathered like the Comet, but only because standards have risen so much.

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Most efficient in a class of one

"which is touted as the most fuel-efficient airliner in its class." -- that should be all right, since until the A350 starts being delivered later this year (hopefully), it is the only airliner in its class, making this kind of distinction rather easy to obtain.

What I do not understand is why Boeing are not learning lessons from their previous failure (i.e., the well-publicised battery desaster). Part of the reason for the delays of the A350 is that EADS are checking their options on what can be done safely concerning fuels, batteries, etc.; maybe Boeing should take the time, too. Costly, yes. But necessary, it seems.

Oh well... I'm only a lowly technical editor writing operating and repair manuals (obviously not for Boeing... or EADS--need a good TE, you guys, I'm available...) with an engineering background. But until you've fixed your plane, I won't get on it...

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Re: Most efficient in a class of one

Everyone remembers what happened to the Comet...

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"Everyone remembers what happened to the Comet..."

Yes, they do, and other aircraft manufacturers have privately admitted that, had the Comet not suffered the problems it did, those problems would most likely have occurred in their aircraft.

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Re: "Everyone remembers what happened to the Comet..."

Yes, I agree, but the reputation was ruined none the less.

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lawyers

I bet they are just waiting for one of these 787 to crash and sue .

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Re: lawyers

I guess they'll be waiting a lot longer for it to do the latter than the former.

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Re: lawyers

Your opinion of accident compensation lawyers is higher than mine.

It wouldn't surprise me if said lawyers were sabotaging batteries to drum up business. And it wouldn't surprise me if they managed to stoop lower...

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Anonymous Coward

Fixing problems the Microsoft way

On Tuesday a Boeing 787 Dreamliner operated by Japan Airlines was parked at Tokyo's Narita airport when a battery pack began emitting white smoke and a mechanic discovered one of the lithium ion cells had vented its fluid.

The improvements made to the 787 battery system last year appear to have worked as designed."

So they redesigned it to leak instead of catching fire. I stand in awe ..

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Re: Fixing problems the Microsoft way

So they redesigned it to leak instead of catching fire. I stand in awe ..

That's a perfectly sensible design decision, if true. Failures are inevitable, so things should fail safe.

That still leaves it open to question whether they'd have been better off using an older, safer, battery tech though. And why they didn't design around the known failure mode of lithium batteries when they did choose to use them.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Fixing problems the Microsoft way

Ummmm, they did design around the known failure mode. They expected Thales (charging mechanism) and GS Yuasa (the battery manufacturer) to have everything sorted out (which is a reasonable assumption to make).

However, when the crap hit the fan, Boeing went for the 'put the battery in a fire-resistant box and vent all the crap overboard when something *does* go wrong, regardless of what Thales and GS Yuasa say' version of things to get those planes flying again. Any weight loss by changing batteries has been negated by the strongbox.

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Re: Fixing problems the Microsoft way

Isn't there a risk of the electrolyte causing damage to other parts of the airframe when it vents, especially if it is caught in the airflow whilst flying, and turned into an aerosol?

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Re: Fixing problems the Microsoft way

Failures are inevitable, however when aircraft components show a tendency to fail far earlier and more frequently than the engineers expect, then action should be taken to STOP the failures, not just mitigate the resuts of them.

Boeing never managed to reproduce the battery issue after the planes were grounded, and so they never found what caused the problem. So they just slapped on some sticking plaster and sent the planes up again with fingers-crossed. The FAA rubber stamped the fix I suspect for economic reasons, rather than because they were really happy it was a fix.

Now there is yet another fire.

Planes should not be allowed to fly when they have an important component that catches fire, and which has been 'fixed' without success. This time, the planes should not be allowed to fly until they actually identify how these fires are happening and make changes to them to stop it, not just put more fire protection around it.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Fixing problems the Microsoft way

Apart from the - so far non fatal - parallel with de Havilland and the Comet, this is troubling anyway when looked at in the context of previous air liner mechanical problems. Hundreds, if not thousands of lives have been lost thanks to aircraft manufacturer's failure to correct known problems. One wonders if when Boeing swallowed Macdonnell they also took it's complacency.

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Re: which is a reasonable assumption to make

Generally good post, but I disagree on that point. I concur that it is a common assumption to make, but I'm not sure it's a good one. Any time you revolutionize a system instead of merely evolving it you need some serious test time with the real thing. Computer models help, but they only go so far. They don't test for unexpected interactions, the real thing will.

And frankly, I'd be happier if there was a fair bit more real test time on the evolving option too.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Fixing problems the Microsoft way

I don't get how batteries can actually improve their fuel efficiency?

Batteries energy density is quite low compared to hydrocarbons, I would have thought some form of APU using the same aviation fuel would have been more efficient? or even a fuel cell?

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Not sure about this

"The aircraft uses electrical power from the batteries to run most internal systems and that, coupled with its lightweight composite body, gives fuel savings of up to 20 per cent."

If you have four enormous engines running, in flight, I don't understand how batteries can help you save fuel during flight, since it costs fuel to carry their weight and then there is the battery charge/discharge energy efficiency. On the ground, yes, but I can't imagine ground fuel savings being all that much compared to in-flight fuel costs.

Can someone who knows about this please comment?

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Re: Not sure about this

The fuel savings are probably due weight reductions: the electronic systems can replace a lot of hydraulics. But you need quite some electrical power to drive all those systems and the power should still be there if the turbines and connected generators fail. Hence the need for big batteries.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Not sure about this

The 787 only has TWO engines not four.

Apart from that I agree with your comment.

In my experience of working on Aircraft, those that had batteries used them only to power the plane to get the APU started. A Ground Power Unit (GPU) would also do the job but a lot of Airports charge an arm and a leg for GPU and PCA (Pre-conditioned-Air).

Once the APU (the little engine underneath the rudder) is going most aircraft systems can be powered as well as having enough juice to start those stonking great Turbo Fans.

Maybe Boeing have tried to do things differently with the 787? Whatever it is, I won't be happy about flying in one until I can be sure that the thing won't catch fire while we are somewhere over the Atlantic/Pacific/Indian Ocean. Last year I did 20+ long haul flights on business.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Not sure about this

There is no difference other than the B787 not needing ground support (i.e. it can function in hotel mode). Most of the juice required from the battery is during start-up, once airborne, all power in the plane is provided by the generators linked to the turbofans.

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Re: Not sure about this

> If you have four enormous engines running, in flight,

They save half the fuel by only having two engines !!

> I don't understand how batteries can help you save fuel during flight,

It doesn't. Actually, while the engines are more fuel efficient than previous jets, the 20% claimed fuel saving is not in total fuel used per flight but is fuel saving per seat-mile. By having less structure weight by using composites instead of metal and saving weight on batteries and stuff they can put in more seats and more passengers.

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Re: Not sure about this @SP

I'd expect petrol or similar to be much more energy dense than any battery so how much of a problem would it be to have a small petrol engine + generator? If it only needs to work on the ground, getting enough air to run it wouldn't be a problem.

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4 engines good 2 engines baaad

I think the problem with a petrol engine is that they would have two sorts fof fuel although a reciprical engine is a lot more efficient than a jet. You would have problems with vibration too, worse in a diesel. There is no reason a paraffin fired genny couldn't be employed though. Early farm tractors used them (Tractor Vapourising Oil.) Vibrated like buggery though. Mind one, that was a fair few years ago.

I imagine a majority of the problem is that aircraft tend to tick over for hours on the ground. Not having to carry fuel for ticking over on the ground would save a lot of lolly as would the smaller petroops... fuel tanks I imagine. I dare say that in the good old days they could just use one small engine to run facilities when parked. By the look of it, with jet engines the bigger the better though, hence just two of them.

Any one have an idea how fast the turn around is on international flights?

What other problems are associated with running gigantic engines on the floor?

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Re: 4 engines good 2 engines baaad

I thought it was the other way around, turbofans being the more efficient? but have to run at higher outputs to be efficient..

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Re: Not sure about this

787 is a twin engined aircraft.

By using electrical systems to replace traditional hydraulic and bleed air (pneumatic) systems you reduce the requirement on the engines to power said systems, meaning they can use more of their energy propelling the aircraft. E.g. de-icing systems that use bleed air reduce engine power enough that their use is factored into takeoff distances.

Also, doing away with these systems allows you to remove the associated equipment and ducting and therefore weight. E.g. if you are no longer using high-pressure, high-temperature bleed air from the engines to pressurise the cabin, then you don't need such complicated systems to reduce it down to a usable pressure and temperature for the task. An additional benefit is that you also no longer have the risk of oil, etc contaminating the cabin air.

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Re: Not sure about this

> By using electrical systems to replace traditional hydraulic and bleed air (pneumatic) systems you reduce the requirement on the engines to power said systems,

And, of course, electricity generators don't require _any_ power to be taken from the engines !!!

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Childcatcher

Nationalize it!

Why does Boeing even exist! It's not like they DO anything. How hard can it be to build planes with functioning batteries. My iPhone has one and it doesn't burn at all. Pretty clear that they knowingly cut corners and put lives in danger in search for excessive profit made on the back of exploited proletarians, quite a bit of which is anyway coming from taxpayers: subsidies and ruinously expensive contracts that the military-cretinous complex thinks it wants to gift itself. And now the bureaucrats and their immense oracles of deep knowledge have to be called in to check it AGAIN - for the Nth time. Does Boeing think these people are available on call? It's outrageous.

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Unhappy

Re: Nationalize it!

"Why does Boeing even exist! It's not like they DO anything. How hard can it be to build planes with functioning batteries. My iPhone has one and it doesn't burn at all. Pretty clear that they knowingly cut corners and put lives in danger in search for excessive profit made on the back of exploited proletarians, quite a bit of which is anyway coming from taxpayers: subsidies and ruinously expensive contracts that the military-cretinous complex thinks it wants to gift itself. And now the bureaucrats and their immense oracles of deep knowledge have to be called in to check it AGAIN - for the Nth time. Does Boeing think these people are available on call? It's outrageous."

Oops.

Deeply bonkers tone + TOTC icon --> internet satire.

I think.

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Re: Nationalize it!

Wonderful idea to nationalize it - just like healthcare. Government, being the most efficient, streamlined, and innovative organization ever created, ought to give us a wonderfully expensive laugh on that one!

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@Ottis

Given DAM's posting history, I think John is correct: it's supposed to be satire.

The problem is, he's got the rant down so well it is difficult to tell the difference between intended satire and an actual occupier post.

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Re: Nationalize it!

US private healthcare: 17.6% of GNP and they don't cover everyone.

Canada: 11.4% and we cover everyone. Germany 11.6% UK and Japan: under 10% 2010 figures

If you want to promote your puerile " private is always better" tripe, find a situation in which it actually applies.

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Battery Electrolyte

So what is the electrolyte in modern batteries?

Old fashioned dry cells had a paste of some sort. These spontanious combustion types must also have a fluid, do they?

I imagine the huge wells needed by sulphuric acid batteries as well as being dangerous in aircraft were just too damned heavy?

Wonderful coolant though. Especially if they spilled or leaked.

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Flame

Yea! Boeing "fixed" the problem!

Well, the problem of the aircraft filling with some sort of aerosol from a malfunctioning battery.

What about the root cause of the electro-chemical anomaly? Feh -- if you want to play with roots go hire a gardener. I wonder if I will live long enough to see engineers rise up and smite their stupid overlords? Naaaah.

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Flame

Re: Yea! Boeing "fixed" the problem!

I liked Boeing's comment on it only being vapour. As it reminds me of their far more fun euphemism from last year. No, no, no! That batteries were NOT on fire. They were merely 'venting with flame'.

An excellent and normal failure mode, that no-one should have any worries about. We'll just stick them in big metal boxes, with an exhaust, and all will be well. Of course, some might say that if this was a known failure mode of the batteries, it might have been a teensy weensy bit of a good idea to provide these simple protections in the original design. But only the most petty-fogging of ninnies would say that Boeing were negligent in not doing so...

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Re: Yea! Boeing "fixed" the problem!

"euphemism from last year"

A long time ago I had a fume-cupboard that wasn't performing properly. The engineers came along, tinkered with the motor, ducting and switch gear and then proclaimed that "it was working safely only the 'smell' was escaping into the lab."

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Joke

Re: Yea! Boeing "fixed" the problem!

Boeing clearly went wrong when they decided against fixing the problem by sticking a set of stonking big fully chromed tailpipes / row of exhaust pipes on the rear of the 787, for the exclusive use of potentially-flameful battery venting. With an option to manually initiate it as a crowd-pleaser. I mean how could something be more badass than that?!?

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Re: Yea! Boeing "fixed" the problem!

"it was working safely only the 'smell' was escaping into the lab."

Reminds me of the site installation and configuration "technician" who insisted in snotty tones that a remote print server was "working" even though I couldn't see it on the network with any of my clever tools.

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Re: it only being vapour.

Yeah, I wonder about that too. I'm not familiar with the specifics of that chemical reaction or its failure modes, so I'm not sure what's in the vapor. I hope it's as harmless as the nuclear plant "smokestack" but worry it might be a bit more like burning plastic.

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Unhappy

"vaporised eletrolyte"

Oh good.

I thought it was just toxic fumes.

But actually it's toxic and corrosive.

So it's likely to eat through the structure as well as my lungs.

Mightily impressive.

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Alternatives exist

The NiMH solution would be similar volume and overall not much weight. Actually the battery boxes would not need to be as strong and heavy Stainless Steel, so the weight increase is small.

Lithium is used in Laptops due to battery being a high proportion of weight, not run time. Lithium used in phones etc due to ability to have rectangular form factor and small size where NiMH become less efficient. I think the Airbus uses NiMH.

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Re: Alternatives exist

Another alternative, and more power efficient than NiMH is LiFEPO4 which is inherently safer than more popular lithium based batteries (Li-Ion and Li-Po).

Ironically, around the time when 787 design was nearing completion (2012), the largest (or only?) American vendor of LiFEPO4 batteries (A123 Systems) bankrupted and the remains were sold to Chinese. Another sad reminder that good engineering is not enough to replace marketing :(

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Alternatives exist

Airbus has switched back to NiMH for the A350, yes.

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JC_

Re: Alternatives exist

Another alternative, and more power efficient than NiMH is LiFEPO4 which is inherently safer than more popular lithium based batteries (Li-Ion and Li-Po).

I had to look that one up, as the idea of Polonium-based anything being safe was amazing. Sadly disappointed to learn it stands for "polymer"!

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