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Are Lithium-Ion Batteries Safe? Boeing 787 Uses Same Technology as Hybrid Chevy Volt and Others

Airbus removes litium-ion batteries from it's aircraftFriday, Airbus announced they were dropping use of new lithium-ion batteries for its A350 airliner following battery issues in Boeing 787 Dreamliners. 

Recently, Boeing’s fleet of state-of-the-art airliners have been largely grounded after two of the rechargeable batteries burned in two separate incidents.  Theses fires prompted an thorough investigation of why they melted, and prompted some to call for abandoning the new technology.

A lithium-ion battery differs from a nickel based battery because it’s lithium content gives it superior performance, it doesn’t lose charge as quickly, and is much lighter.   However, due to the volatility of lithium, it can, rarely, catch fire.   These batteries are used in everything from your cellphone to computers, and are why these devices can perform so well.

But  the batteries used in hybrid cars and on the new Boeing 787 are hundreds of times larger than the one in your cellphone.   The Chevy Volt experienced two separate post-crash test fires last year as reported by the National Transportation Highway Safety Administration (NTHSA), and the two Boeing aircraft incidents.

However, while a very small number of these batteries have caught fire,  the technology is still sound. The Chevy Volt fires occurred after the cooling systems for the batteries were damaged besides the batteries in the crash tests, allowing them to heat up and spark days after the wrecks.  The batteries themselves did not initiate the fires, it was only after they were allowed to overheat.

The investigation into the Boeing issues did NOT provide a concrete answer as to why the units caught fire.  It could be due to the cooling system, or perhaps internally the aircraft battery had some differences in its construction.

No battery fires have been reported in any other hybrids other than the two Volts whose cooling systems were damaged in the crash tests.   But the idea of a battery melting on an airplane obviously causes great concern because potentially hundreds of passengers could be on board.

Airbus said they will continue to develop their own lithium-ion units for future use, but in the meantime are going to re-fit all Airbus aircraft with older nickel based batteries.

The verdict?   The technology has worked just fine in the digital communication and hybrid car industry, but when it comes to even larger aircraft batteries, some continued research and development is needed.

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