Boeing's Dreamliner Fix Eliminates Its Battery's Biggest Advantages

boeing dreamliner 787 battery enclosure fix changeThe 787 battery in its new (yellow) enclosure.

Photo: Boeing

At a press conference in Tokyo on Friday, Boeing executives presented a three-tiered set of solutions to prevent its Dreamliner lithium ion battery system from failing.Unfortunately, the “comprehensive solutions” eliminate the biggest advantage offered by lithium ion batteries — because they are especially powerful, they can be lighter and smaller, and therefore make the Dreamliner more fuel efficient.

Boeing’s three-part plan calls for stopping battery cells from short-circuiting in the first place, preventing such failure from spreading throughout the battery, and making sure the plane is not damaged if all that happens anyway.

That last step involves a sealed battery enclosure, to make sure damage from an overheating battery cannot spread (once a monitoring system detects a potential problem, oxygen will be removed from the case, so a fire cannot start).

The downside of the design changes, Vice President and Chief Project Engineer Mike Sinnett said on Friday, is that they add 150 pounds to the Dreamliner’s weight, and the batteries take up more space.

That effectively neutralizes the advantages gained by using the smaller, lighter lithium ion batteries.

But, Sinnett said, it’s not a total wash: The batteries are still more powerful, have longer shelf lives, and are easier to charge.

But the best benefits, key for planes designed to be lighter — and thus more fuel-efficient — than any of its competitors, are gone.

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