Sunday, June 24, 2018
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The Dreamliner Nightmare
Walter Salm, Editor
We have always been great cheerleaders for American-made products, and Boeing's airliners are no exception. Selling billions of dollars' worth of commercial airliners to other countries has to help our staggering balance-of-payments deficit. But the latest phase of this balancing act is now in jeopardy because of some apparently defective or improperly rated lithium-ion batteries — batteries that were made in Japan.

The Dreamliner has the distinction of being truly international, the sum of many parts from many lands. Boeing is the prime contractor, subcontracting body parts, frames, wings, engines, avionics, and yes batteries, to other companies in countries around the world. It was conceived as a truly global effort, and part of the reason was very self-serving — to get the participating nations to buy Boeing airliners. As we go to press, virtually all 787 Dreamliners have been grounded until the problem is solved. The Japanese battery maker, GS Yuasa (I never heard of them before) is apparently a large, well-known company in Japan.

Coupled with the hue and cry is the voice of reason that says, "Virtually every new airliner has had bugs when new, and they have all been ironed out." To put that statement in perspective, the "bugs" in earlier aircraft usually resulted in plane crashes and fatalities. The "bugs" were worked out and those aircraft are in service today (the ones that didn't crash). In the case of the 787, there have been no crashes, but there have been some scary emergency landings and passenger evacuations down those wonderful emergency slides, which all seem to have worked very well. The batteries were overheated, smoking, burning, on fire — just short of explosive.

Now stop to consider a couple of truths: first the 787's overall design places total reliance on electrical control systems for everything — stuff that's handled by hydraulics and simple mechanical linkages in previous models of commercial jet aircraft. The all-electrical control system was to make this truly the plane of the future, destined to be in service for decades to come. Those all-encompassing electrical systems require a hefty battery system. Lithium-ion batteries provide the best bang for the buck of all available rechargeable batteries. But lithium itself is a very unstable element, extremely prone to exploding when mixed with water, or even a humid atmosphere. Wouldn't this negative characteristic disqualify lithium-ion batteries for something as sensitive as a commercial passenger aircraft? So far, they've only caught on fire, but obviously, the potential is there for a serious disaster.

We've often said in these pages that the world's battery technology is still in the dark ages — lagging way behind the burgeoning technology of electronics design and semiconductor manufacturing. Moore's Law — doubling the number of active elements on a semiconductor chip every two years — has yet to miss a beat. How wonderful it would be if the same could be said for battery technology? Batteries have been known for thousands of years. No, Allesandro Volta wasn't the first; that honor goes to some "magician" or "sorcerer" or metalsmith in ancient Babylon. There was no patent protection in those days; the "secret" was handed from father to son until it was finally lost, and it stayed lost for a long, long time. Pieces of these ancient batteries were discovered by an Austrian archaeologist near Baghdad in 1938, but World War II got in the way, and the discovery was forgotten for a while. Reproductions of this Babylon Battery were funded by General Electric in the 1960s, and later "scientific models" are on display in a Smith College Museum in Northampton, Massachusetts. The clincher: gold electroplated jewelry has survived from that ancient period, about 250 B.C.E.

I mention all this because for all of our wondrous technological achievements, today's battery technology is still woefully crude. Nobody seems to be giving battery R&D the kind of priority that it deserves. So now we have state-of-the-art airliners that are sitting on the ground because of some not so state-of-the-art batteries. Boeing may well have to go back to the drawing boards to figure this one out. Maybe remove some First Class Seats to make room for some not-so-up-to-date backup batteries. Some way has to be found to get the Dreamliners airborne again. Energizer bunny — where are you when we need you?  

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