Two incidents involving the Boeing 787 ‘Dreamliner’ planes catching on fire have occurred within the past ten days. The incidents occurred in a plane in Boston parked on the tarmac and a plane in Japan which had to make an emergency landing this week, following alarm warnings of the presence of smoke in the airplanes. The apparent fires are believed to have been caused by the use of lithium-ion batteries in the 787’s electrical system. The lithium batteries are made in Japan by GS Yuasa.
Nippon Airways and Japan Airlines grounded all of their 787 planes, and United Airlines, the only American carrier with 787s, has grounded its 6 jets. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has issued an emergency directive grounding all 787s and regulatory agencies in India, Europe and other countries throughout the world are following suit. Boeing’s Chief Executive Jim McNerny was quoted recently in The New York Times as saying “the 787 is safe and we stand behind its overall integrity.”
Because lithium-ion batteries produce oxygen when burning, fires started by lithium-ion batteries are difficult to put out with fire suppressants, according to Mike Sinnet, Boeing’s chief engineer. (NewYorkTimes, 1/17/13) Replacing the lithium-ion batteries with larger, heavier, more conventional nickel-cadmium or lead-acid batteries would add greater weight to the plane and reduce fuel savings. Although the FAA was aware of the hazards lithium-ion batteries could cause, it permitted Boeing to use them in the 787 in 2007, even though the “’lithium-ion batteries are significantly more susceptible to internal failures that can lead to self-sustaining increases in temperatures and pressure’ than conventional batteries.” (New York Times, 1/17/13)