Batteries Aboard Boeing Dreamliner Go Blooey Again

Here We Go Again: Dreamliners stayed put at Narita Airport following reports of smoke.

The battery problem that last year afflicted Boeing's worldwide fleet of 787 Dreamliners appears to have recurred. Japan Airlines grounded its 787s Wednesday after workers noticed smoke emanating from a battery pack on a 787 they were checking before a planned flight out of Narita Airport, in Tokyo.

Last year's problems also involved a JAL airliner, which was in Boston's Logan Airport at the time. A Nippon Air 787 was similarly affected two weeks later.

What happened this time around is still unclear.

Last year, though, the culprit was thermal runaway—a self-accelerating reaction that causes a battery to release energy all too quickly. Some critics blamed the choice of lithium-ion battery technology, which saves an insignificant amount of weight in the plane's design and is only a bit more convenient than the old metal-hydride batteries were. Others cast aspersions just on the particular anode chemistry that Boeing had chosen for the battery—a chemistry that was efficient but relatively volatile. A different criticism was offered by Elon Musk, who pioneered the use of lithium-ion batteries in his Tesla car. He said that Boeing should have used a larger number of smaller cells and insulated the cells more effectively from one another.

In the end, Boeing got the 787s back in the air with a workaround involving a thicker containment vessel that included heat sensors and a venting system. Whether that system worked yesterday in Narita is not yet known.

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