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There's a surreal exclusive from the Associated Press about the Dreamliner.  While that plane will likely be grounded for the foreseeable future due to concerns about its lithium-ion battery causing a fire, that same battery is now allowed to be transported aboard passenger planes as cargo.  Even more surreal, when the Dreamliner was initially cleared for flight, lithium-ion batteries could not be transported aboard passenger planes.  The reason?  Fire risk.  I thought this story was snark when it rolled across my Windows 8 news feed, but it isn't.

Dreamliners worldwide were grounded nearly three weeks ago after lithium ion batteries that are part of the planes led to a fire in one plane and smoke in a second. But new rules exempt aircraft batteries from the ban on large lithium ion batteries as cargo on flights by passenger planes.

In effect, that means the Dreamliner's batteries are now allowed to fly only if they're not attached to a Dreamliner.

The regulations were published on Jan. 7, the same day as a battery fire in a Japan Airlines 787 parked at Boston's Logan International Airport that took firefighters nearly 40 minutes to put out. The timing of the two events appears coincidental.

The reason for this? In October 2011, the International Civil Aviation Organization allowed aircraft batteries that weigh as much as 77 pounds to be transported aboard passenger planes.  The change was made at the request of the International Air Transport Association, the lobbying group for the airline industry.  It went into effect at the start of 2013.  Previously, U.S. law barred the transport of any lithium-ion batteries heavier than 11 pounds aboard passenger planes.  However, the battery industry managed to get the law changed so that U.S. regulations can't be stricter than ICAO standards.  There's no word yet on whether the Dreamliner has prompted a rethink of this--but one would expect it would trigger one, given the stakes.

An awful lot of people in aviation are hoping a rethink comes soon.

Pilots and safety advocates say the situation doesn't make sense. If the 787's battery system is too risky to allow the planes to fly, then it's too risky to ship the same batteries as cargo on airliners, they said.

"These incidents have raised the whole issue of lithium batteries and their use in aviation," said Jim Hall, a former National Transportation Safety Board chairman. "Any transport of lithium batteries on commercial aircraft for any purpose should be suspended until (an) NTSB investigation is complete and we know more about this entire issue."

In an even more telling statement, Sully Sullenberger--the man who has become the definition of a pilot remaining cool under pressure--says he would not be comfortable flying an airliner with lithium-ion batteries in its cargo hold.

Apparently the risks of transporting lithium-ion batteries are no secret to cargo pilots.  Fires involving lithium-ion batteries can reach temps as high as 1,100 degrees, and are absolute hell to put out.  In 2006, a UPS plane carrying lithium-ion batteries caught fire after landing in Philly, and the pilots barely got out alive.

The IATA says it wanted to carry lithium-ion batteries aboard passenger planes so the batteries can be transported when cargo aircraft aren't available or when one is needed right away.  But if this story is any indication, it doesn't seem to be worth the safety risk.

Originally posted to Christian Dem in NC on Sun Feb 03, 2013 at 06:03 AM PST.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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Comment Preferences

  •  To be fair.... (29+ / 0-)

    To be fair, Lithium batteries tend to burn under two distinct circumstances: if they've been overcharged by a charger, or if they've been undercharged by drawing too much power of of them. When isolated from any electronics, and sitting a room temperature, they're basically inert.

    So as long as they are in the cargo hold not connected to anything (and the cargo hold isn't actually on fire itself), they are actually quite a bit safer than when they are attached to the airplane's electrical system.

    •  Correct... (13+ / 0-)

      any battery under a charging/discharging load is in a fundamentally different state than one which is electrically isolated from any connection.

      •  Not to mention... (5+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        lazybum, Nowhere Man, tle, Flying Goat, BlueZ

        that "lithium ion" is a whole family of chemistries, not a single chemistry, and its members have radically different performance and safety profiles.  The sort of abuse I've seen some of the phosphates and spinels take is just ridiculous - multiple discharges down to zero volts, high current rapid overcharging, physical crushing of used cells, etc, and nada, nothing happens.

        Unfortunately, the cells used in the Dreamliner are an absurd design that never, ever, ever should have been approved.  They're basically just eight gigantic laptop cells, and in no way isolated from each other.  The laptop style cells, with lithium cobalt oxide (also the chemistry used in cell phones, although not the same format cell) are prone to runaway thermal acceleration, especially after either manufacturing defects, charging at sub-freezing temperatures, or near end-of-life (aka, situations that encourage metallic lithium to plate out).  They are, however, cheap because there's massive production of their components at present and they have the best energy density (you lose 25-50% if you go with some of the safer varieties).

        Most electric cars, for safety reasons, do not use this format li-ion cell, instead opting for safer varieties.  Tesla does use the laptop-style variety (actually, not just laptop style but literal 18650-format laptop cells), but they take some pretty extreme precautions. There are thousands of little cells instead of a few big ones.  Each cell is isolated in a little can designed to handle the failure of that individual cell without it propagating to others.  There's also some clever charge balancing techniques designed to help work around bad cells to begin with.

        I just can't envision how the design that Boeing used could ever have been approved.  It's like asking someone to approve the design for your kitchen where you have a roll of paper towels dangling over a gas stove burner.  Which then leads to calls for people to ban gas stoves and paper towels as a kitchen fire risk.  :Þ  Why on earth do airlines have to go through this ridiculously complex and expensive certification process for every little tweak they make to simply have such glaring oversights signed off on?

      •  Cargo vs. passenger jets (6+ / 0-)

        That's an interesting article that you linked and it raises an important distinction, that of carrying these batteries on cargo jets (like the UPS incidents cited) and putting the batteries in cargo holds on passenger jets.

        I won't pretend to be an expert on any of this but I do recall from the ValuJet airliner that crashed into the Everglades that cargo holds in passenger planes are designed to starve fires by depriving them of oxygen.  The ValuJet craft had improperly stored oxygen cannisters that fed a fire, causing the crash.

        (To be sure I was remembering this correctly, I looked up the NTSB report, a PDF of which is here.)

        Because of the passenger vs. cargo jet distinction, I'd imagine that the process of setting safety regulations differs quite a bit between the two.

        •  When a cargo jet burns (9+ / 0-)

          it rarely gets more than a quick blurb on the news.

          If you're lucky, you have maybe 20 minutes to put the plane on the ground before the fire burns through something you need to fly the plane with.

          If the pilot's good, see, I mean if he's reeeally sharp, he can barrel that baby in so low... oh you oughta see it sometime. It's a sight. A big plane like a '52... varrrooom! Its jet exhaust... frying chickens in the barnyard!

          by Major Kong on Sun Feb 03, 2013 at 09:24:47 AM PST

          [ Parent ]

        •  Valujet crash was even worse than that- (10+ / 0-)

          The oxygen canisters in question were the same type then being widely adopted by the airlines to provide emergency oxygen to passengers in the event of of cabin depressurization. They were replacing the much simpler, much safer, but heavier (and therefore more expensive to carry in flight) compressed oxygen bottles previously used. And at least some of them were stacked loose in the cargo hold, where they might have become activated by knocking against other objects.

          These canisters generate oxygen via a chemical reaction triggered by a percussion cap (you know, a little explosive device) which creates a fair amount of heat along with the generation of oxygen. Most analyses of the crash that I have read indicate that one or more of the canisters apparently 'activated', which generated enough heat to spark a fire, which was then fueled by the oxygen. Even if one accepts the dubious proposition that they were 'safe', they had no business being carried as 'cargo' stacked loose in the hold beneath the passengers' feet.

          So cutting corners to save money killed everyone on the plane.

      •  You need to be a bit more technically nuanced here (5+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        David PA, DBunn, skip intro, SCFrog, Lujane

        In the examples cited, failures occurred in instances where a pallet was dropped (there needs to be a lot more detail here since oodles of scenarios are possible in which the batteries enter a load state), problems were seen with prototype units, and a number remain unattributed (but Li-ion battery involvement is suspected).

        I'd pay most attention to the prototype case.  There the NTSB (if I'm reading the report correctly) speculated that an external short circuit was the likely cause of the heating and fire (see for details).  In other words, inappropriate packaging supposedly allowed the system to enter a short circuit load state.

        Now, if the plane you're on goes does because someone doesn't know how to package things, that's no real comfort and the need for this level of detail is an arguable and defensible reason to maintain that ground based shipment (truck or ship) may be a desired restriction for this class of products.

        I agree, lots of questions here.  But let's try to keep the technical details straight.

        •  Lithium-ion technology is old (13+ / 0-)

          New technologies have addressed the issue of fires from improper usage.  Lithium Iron Phosphate batteries do not catch fire and have a nearly identical energy density of lithium ion batteries.  I have several 100Ah lithium iron phosphate batteries in my office that weigh about 35 lbs and the manufacturer assures me they will not cause fires.  I'm not about to test that theory. I have accidentally shorted the leads a few times and I'm still typing this comment, so it mustn't be too bad.  There were a few sparks, but you can get that with any shorted batteries.  

          The problem is the international laws state that batteries containing lithium over a certain weight are illegal on airplanes.  I wasn't aware that regulations have exempted airplane batteries from those laws.  I do know that we need to ship our batteries by ground to shows for demos and such.  It is a real drag.  Maybe I'll declare our batteries to be airplane batteries so they can fly on planes.  

          I've been playing with lithium iron phosphate batteries for a few years now and have had zero problems.  One battery went to complete discharge and just sat there, no extreme heat.  It was dead Jim, but it didn't burn.  I've also overcharged lithium iron phosphate batteries and they don't have any problems with excessive heat either.  Why Boeing doesn't change to lithium iron phosphate batteries is strange.  Probably because they need to do all the testing that I'm willing to take on faith.   I hope so.

          "War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength", George Orwell, "1984" -7.63 -5.95

          by dangoch on Sun Feb 03, 2013 at 09:26:08 AM PST

          [ Parent ]

          •  Agree completely (4+ / 0-)

            Segway batteries are lithium polymer and are considered safe yet they are classified with the less safe lithium ion batteries and cannot be transported on airplanes.

            My thought is that whoever at Boeing picked this Japanese manufacturer made a huge mistake.

          •  That is one of the questions being asked now (3+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            JeffW, elginblt, Nowhere Man

            And the basic answer is they made a poor choice.

            This is not Monday Morning Quarterbacking; the standard engineering process includes pFMEA analysis where one considers potential failure modes of a given technology and design, and the alternatives, so the fact the batteries in question got through selection, design and certification (even after incidents during certification) raises questions about that process.

            About now someone has read through the pFMEAs to see what was considered and is asking these questions, and I'm really interested in the answers, something the FAA, NTSB and Boeing should report.

            What about my Daughter's future?

            by koNko on Sun Feb 03, 2013 at 06:07:18 PM PST

            [ Parent ]

      •  thats some litany (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Lujane, BYw

        a pallet of em was dropped 20 feet to the ground?

        a shipment was overheated on the ground and went onto a plane smoking?

        should we allow passengers to carry them in laptops, ipads, and other devices?

        they SHOULD be only shipped as cargo in fireboxes with active alarm systems, ill certainly say that.

        and a battery isolated from charges or loads is obviously a whole different animal.

        Oxygen generators ?   Now THAT is haz cargo !


        Out of my cold dead hands

        by bluelaser2 on Sun Feb 03, 2013 at 11:12:32 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

    •  Previous rules, explicitly on the fire issue, (3+ / 0-)

      prohibited any shipping of this type of battery—even a replacement, factory packed one for a friend's computer overseas. Nobody would accept it for shipment, not FEDEX, USPS nor UPS. UPS gave me a near booklet on the rules.

      Interesting they are then put into a passenger aircraft in the first place and, when fires indeed happen to expertly installed batteries, the regulations get one peculiar little "fix."

      The only foes that threaten America are the enemies at home, and those are ignorance, superstition, and incompetence. [Elbert Hubbard]

      by pelagicray on Sun Feb 03, 2013 at 07:12:59 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  Unless damaged. (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
  •  The situation is probably more complex than this (15+ / 0-)

    for example, I suspect that jet fuel is not allowed as cargo on passenger planes, yet massive amounts of that particular very dangerous substance are allowed (in fact, required I've been told) on many flights . . . .

  •  As a model builder, (6+ / 0-)

    I am familiar with both Li-Po (lithium polymer) and Li-ion (lithium ion) batteries.  They are popular for models because of the enormous power that can be stored in a very small package, and they are not all that expensive.  However, storage and transportation are a safety issue.  I do not leave a batter on a charger unattended.  I sit there with a fire extinguisher close by while a battery is charging.  Many model suppliers now make fireproof bags for transporting the batteries.  Having the trunk of your car or SUV catch on fire will spoil all the fun of a trip to the flying field.  

    Here is an informative article about these batteries from a model builder's point of view.

    The general who wins the battle makes many calculations in his temple before the battle is fought. The general who loses makes but few calculations beforehand. - Sun Tzu

    by Otteray Scribe on Sun Feb 03, 2013 at 06:35:25 AM PST

  •  This is what we are talking about. (7+ / 0-)

    When a real load is put on the battery, this can be the end result.  This battery in about the size of a pack of cigarettes. The model cost several hundred dollars and many hours of work.  This was its maiden flight.  It caught fire in flight and burned the wing attachments in two, creating a total in-flight failure.

    The general who wins the battle makes many calculations in his temple before the battle is fought. The general who loses makes but few calculations beforehand. - Sun Tzu

    by Otteray Scribe on Sun Feb 03, 2013 at 06:46:11 AM PST

  •  Li batteries have been ruled out, last I heard (9+ / 0-)

    Standard rechargeable Li ion batteries themselves, when properly maintained, are not much of a risk. The problem is that they can catch fire/explode if overcharged or shorted. Last I heard, the investigation had ruled out spontaneous combustion and they were looking at the charging system.

    "Lithium battery" is actually a general term for a range of battery chemistries that have in them, each with unique features. The safety regs are a bit of a mess right now because the technology is rapidly evolving both in terms of the batteries themselves but also what has a lithium battery inside it. Setting rules too strict and/or broad can be economically harmful and, more importanrl not make things safer.

    I've been dealing with this a lot lately. For example, I make electronic instruments.  There is no problem if I air ship a device with a Li battery inside it, but I have all kind of hassle if I ship the same battery separately.

    "I don't cry over milk spilled under bridges. I go make lemonade" - Bucky Katt

    by quill on Sun Feb 03, 2013 at 06:52:31 AM PST

    •  Not ruled out just yet... (0+ / 0-)

      They are not finding anything which isn't clearing them. It's still an ongoing investigation. These batteries are not your typical Li Ion batteries, but are very large versions that haven't been in commercial use before this. So it's too soon to claim that they are as safe as their smaller versions.

      "I think it's the duty of the comedian to find out where the line is drawn and cross it deliberately." -- George Carlin, Satirical Comic,(1937-2008)

      by Wynter on Sun Feb 03, 2013 at 09:25:38 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Boeing/NTSB/Japan's NTSB/manufacturer (0+ / 0-)

        are still working on the problem.  

        There is supposed to be a lock out of the battery when it get's to 15 volts.  And the charging station is SUPPOSED to stop full charging when it reaches 90% capacity and go to trickle charge to full.

        Yes there are lot of finger pointing (including the bird).  SPEEA is having a field day with the new negotiations because of this (they were hardly consulted on the 787 engineering work - just the basic designs and specs).  

        It ain't all smiles and roses as some VP's heads are on the line.

        "Death is the winner in any war." - Nightwish/Imaginareum/Song of myself.

        by doingbusinessas on Sun Feb 03, 2013 at 11:24:46 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  Lithium cobalt batteries (8+ / 0-)

          Boeing is using Lithium cobalt batteries in the 787:  "...the most flammable of several possible types. The test found that batteries of that type provided the most power, but could also overheat more quickly. "

          Perhaps the need to ship replacement batteries on passenger planes is due to the unexpected (and expensive) need for frequent replacement due to performance failures (not reportable safety problems) of these batteries.

          From today's "Seattle Times:"
          "Company engineers blame the 787’s outsourced supply chain, saying that poor quality components are coming from subcontractors that have operated largely out of Boeing’s view.

          “The risk to the company is not this battery, even though this is really bad right now,” said one 787 electrical engineer, who asked not to be identified. “The real problem is the power panels.”

          "Unlike earlier Boeing jets, he said, the innards of the 787 power distribution panels — which control the flow of electricity to the plane’s many systems — are “like Radio Shack,” with parts that are “cheap, plastic and prone to failure.”
          "A senior Boeing engineer not directly involved with the 787 said he believes the company’s early delegation of control on 787 outsourcing to multiple tiers of suppliers is now coming back to bite the jet program, though it made belated efforts to tighten up oversight of suppliers.

          “The supplier management organization (at Boeing) didn’t have diddly-squat in terms of engineering capability when they sourced all that work,” he said.
           Traditionally, he said, Boeing’s in-house experts created detailed specifications for every part of the plane made by suppliers, and had the in-house technical capability to closely monitor whether the work came up to spec.

          “They needed complete knowledge of what was going on,” said Hart-Smith. “I warned that if they outsourced too much work, the day would eventually come when there wouldn’t be enough in-house capability to even write the specs.”

          The senior Boeing engineer with indirect knowledge of the battery and electrical system troubles believes that’s what happened.

          “Internally, we may not have the engineering horsepower required to understand the depths of the (battery system) problem as quickly as we prefer,” he said. “We let too much capability slip away from us.”
          The Boeing engineer with direct knowledge of the electrical systems is not optimistic.

          “We talk to supplier management all the time,” he said. “These parts are such bad quality.”
          the 787 electrical engineer said that when the battery problem is resolved and the Dreamliners fly again, more power panel problems will likely surface, and could lead to more diversions that would further damage the jet’s reputation.

          “To the public, it’s still electrical,” he said.

          He said the company has been to focused on individual, narrow fixes.

          “We have not done a real redesign,” he said. “We should be examining the entire electrical system.”


          The real crux of the problem dates back to 1997 when Boeing took over McDonnell Douglas, and the people who caused McDonnell Douglas to fail took over Boeing management.

          •  Everything you stated, I have read and (2+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            OleHippieChick, BYw

            agree with...

            When Boeing outsourced parts and those contractors/suppliers sub'd it out and those sub'd it even more, there is NO quality control.

            Boeing was extremely protective of it's 747, 767 and 777 designs that any paper plans that were revised, the old ones were triple shredded.  Now the Japanese have stated since the 787 program for the wings fell into their lap, they can build a plane of their own...  

            "Death is the winner in any war." - Nightwish/Imaginareum/Song of myself.

            by doingbusinessas on Sun Feb 03, 2013 at 01:09:05 PM PST

            [ Parent ]

  •  There (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Urban Owl, pengiep

    are many instances of materials deemed to dangerous for air freight. These usually include combustible metals which is more or less what is contained within any lithium battery. I just hope the rush of people here to condemn the dreamliners issues as being the result of more outsourcing don't get too caught up and focus on the potential hazards of lithium batteries which are a vital part of renewable energy technology. Remember the Chevy Volt's battery problems? The meme here wasn't to demonize the car or the future of its technology but to understand the growing pains any new and important technology experience. Lets not be hypocrites.  

  •  Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk gives a shocking quote (13+ / 0-)
    Unfortunately, the pack architecture supplied to Boeing is inherently unsafe," he wrote in an email to "Large cells without enough space between them to isolate against the cell-to-cell thermal domino effect means it is simply a matter of time before there are more incidents of this nature."
  •  Just waiting for a UPS truck fire.... (0+ / 0-)

    while shipping these batteries by ground. Now that would be the nail in their coffin.

    "I think it's the duty of the comedian to find out where the line is drawn and cross it deliberately." -- George Carlin, Satirical Comic,(1937-2008)

    by Wynter on Sun Feb 03, 2013 at 09:19:43 AM PST

  •  Now I'm wondering about (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    jabney, Dirtandiron

    my 18v lith-ion makita cordless drill. I leave batteries on the charger all the time to have a recharged battery ready for use. I've never given safety or fire a thought and haven't made the connection to the dreamliner stories until now. Should I be changing my practices?

    music- the universal language

    by daveygodigaditch on Sun Feb 03, 2013 at 09:29:12 AM PST

    •  Smaller batteries have a smaller thermal effect (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      and depending on your model, it may have a cut off to stop over charging.

      I would only charge them as needed and be around just in case with a CO2 fire extinguisher on hand.

      I was told (it may not be true) that the Li ion batteries GENERATE oxygen when they go up thus making the fire much more hotter (like a acetylene torch).  That is what burns the electrolyte and the cases.

      "Death is the winner in any war." - Nightwish/Imaginareum/Song of myself.

      by doingbusinessas on Sun Feb 03, 2013 at 11:29:41 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  Don't most of our laptops have Li-ion batteries? (0+ / 0-)

      Remember about 8-10 years ago when all those laptop batteries were exploding into flames? They pretty quickly solved that problem. I wonder why similar isn't done with the airplane batteries?

      "Mit der Dummheit kämpfen Götter selbst vergebens," -Friedrich Schiller "Against Stupidity, the Gods themselves contend in Vain"

      by pengiep on Sun Feb 03, 2013 at 02:30:46 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Different problem (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        JeffW, chickeee

        The problems with consumer Li ion batteries you mention was due to an unexpected problem in the manufacturing process of the (solid) electrolyte.

        During the compounding process materials are mechanically milled and as the milling screws wore, tiny metal fragments broke off and were randomly distributed in the materials, i.e., one in several thousand batteries might have a single fragment.

        Depending on the size and location of the metal fragments in a manufactured battery, they could cause a short while the battery was cycling (charging or discharging).

        This problem was solved by first, installing magnetic traps down-srteam of the mill screws in the process lines and later changing to ceramic screws.

        What about my Daughter's future?

        by koNko on Sun Feb 03, 2013 at 06:18:38 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

  •  this doesn't make sense (0+ / 0-)

    even UPS has on their site, effective this year, rules for transporting lithium batteries.  And one as large as the Dreamliner's would be hazardous goods and require special labeling, packaging, and extra fees when shipped UPS.

    link to pdf on page:
    Refer to the International Lithium Battery Regulations for more details...

    I find it hard to believe batteries this large would be allowed on a passenger plane.  We have not heard the end of this.

    "The only person sure of himself is the man who wishes to leave things as they are, and he dreams of an impossibility" -George M. Wrong.

    by statsone on Sun Feb 03, 2013 at 04:26:29 PM PST

  •  At least 100 batteries failed on 787 fleet (0+ / 0-)

    The Seattle Times...

    Boeing had numerous reliability issues with the main batteries on its 787 Dreamliner long before the two battery incidents this month grounded the entire fleet.

    More than 100 of the lithium-ion batteries have failed and had to be returned to the Japanese manufacturer, according to a person inside the 787 program with direct knowledge.

    “We have had at least 100, possibly approaching 150, bad batteries so far,” the person said. “It’s common.”

    With so many failures, it becomes understandable why they'd want the restrictions on transporting the batteries to be relaxed- the constant need for replacement out in the field.

    The modern conservative is engaged in one of man's oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness. -- John Kenneth Galbraith

    by richardak on Sun Feb 03, 2013 at 04:53:30 PM PST

  •  Ummm... they aren't plugged in and under stress. (0+ / 0-)

    No 787 batteries have esploded in manufacturing transport, so, wtf.

    Meantime, obviously someone fucked up, because as dangerous as LiIon batteries can be, we are all walking around with millions of them in our pockets and bags all day long.... yet no great epidemic of esploding peoples.

    Once they find a real engineer, they will figure out how the batteries or power circuitry got fucked up, and fix them.

  •  I'm reassured. (0+ / 0-)

    What could go wrong?♦

    -9.00, -5.85
    Quite an experience to live in fear, isn't it? That's what it is to be a slave.

    by Wintermute on Sun Feb 03, 2013 at 05:24:52 PM PST

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