Were the Boeing 787 Batteries Cooled Properly?

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Were the Boeing 787 Batteries Cooled Properly?

The Boeing 787’s high-profile battery fire may have been the result of an engineering double-whammy:

an energetic battery chemistry combined with a possibly inadequate cooling system.

Battery experts who spoke to Design News this week said that the 787’s lithium-ion batteries employed a cobalt oxide cathode, which is known to be more prone to overheating than other lithium battery chemistries.

If that chemistry was used without extra measures to draw heat away from the pack, it could be a problem, experts said.

"It’s a no-brainer," Elton Cairns, a professor of chemical engineering at the University of California and a nationally known battery expert, told us.

"If they used a cobalt oxide chemistry, then the battery should use a cooling system."

An NTSB engineer examines the casing from the battery involved in the JAL Boeing 787 flight in Boston.
(Source: NTSB)

Although Boeing has not said whether the 787’s lithium-ion battery packs use any kind of active cooling system, experts who saw photos of the packs said it looked unlikely. "The images I saw indicated that there was no active cooling system and this battery pack has many cells stacked close together," Donald Sadoway, the John F. Elliot Professor of Materials Chemistry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, wrote in an email to Design News. "So you need active thermal management."

Boeing representatives told Design News that their lithium-ion battery pack used specific measures to prevent overcharging. "There are multiple back-ups to ensure the battery system is safe," a Boeing spokesman told us. "That includes protection against over-charging and over-discharging."

Boeing representatives did not know whether the battery packs included cooling, however. And cooling was not mentioned in a five-page transcription of a Boeing media call explaining the incidents.

The 787’s use of lithium-ion batteries for the auxiliary power unit is said to be a first, which is one of the reasons why the batteries are being scrutinized so heavily. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) X-rayed batteries from a January 7 fire aboard a Japan Airlines Boeing 787 at Logan International Airport in Boston. The NTSB team also did CT scans, disassembled the battery, and examined flight data recorders to determine if it exceeded its design voltage of 32V.

On January 20, investigators said that the battery did not exceed its prescribed voltage. Since then, the agency has continued to look for the root cause of the problems, which have occurred on two Japan Airlines flights and one United flight.

Whether or not the battery exceeded its design voltage, however, experts believe a cooling system was critical. Lithium-ion battery chemistries in general are "energetic," they said, and the cobalt oxide varieties of lithium-ion are particularly so.

"Not all lithium-ion batteries are created equal," Cosmin Laslau, a research analyst for Lux Research, told us. "None of them should fail. They are all essentially safe. But in the event of a failure, lithium cobalt oxide would fail earlier than the other types. Chemical bonds in lithium cobalt oxide will release oxygen earlier." Experts say the release of that oxygen can, in rare cases, lead to fire.

Many engineering teams around the world choose cobalt oxide chemistries, however, because it offers energy densities that can be up to 25 percent higher than other types of lithium-ion, such as manganese spinel (used in the Chevy Volt) and phosphate-based systems.

To counteract the higher energies, big, lithium-ion batteries in general are often used in conjunction with cooling systems, no matter whether they are cobalt-, manganese-, or phosphate-based. The Chevy Volt, for example, employs liquid coolant that circulates through 1-mm thick channels machined into 144 metal plates sitting between its lithium-ion manganese spinel cells. Similarly, the Prius PHV plug-in hybrid uses specialized fans, intake ducts, and 42 temperature sensors to actively monitor and cool its lithium-ion battery.

To be sure, the 787’s 63-lb battery pack is smaller than those of today’s typical electric cars, which can often exceed 400 lb.

But experts said that lithium-ion batteries of all types need ways for heat to get out. "Size does make a difference," Cairns told us. "But the size of that (Boeing) battery is still substantial.

If the cell casings are touching one another or have inadequate space to allow for natural convection cooling by air, then you’re in for trouble."

Cairns said that he hadn’t personally seen the Boeing battery pack, however, and didn’t know if Boeing engineers had provided any means for the heat to escape.

Battery experts who spoke to Design News repeatedly stressed the fact that all types of lithium-ion batteries can be safe and successful, if engineered properly.

The question still being answered is whether Boeing engineers did that.

“They should have stress-tested the battery with charging system as it it is installed in the 787,” Sadoway said. “I myself wouldn’t fly in a 787 at this point."

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