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Boeing Ignores Our FDL Advice, but Airbus Takes it: Drops Burning Battery Like a Hot Potato

Boeing Ignores Our FDL Advice, but Airbus Takes it: Drops Burning Battery Like a Hot Potato — by NormanB (“Deviations from the Norm”)


(As if predicting our current predicament, here are Paul McCartney and Wings performing  Magneto and Titanium Man in 1976 in Seattle.)


Airbus did not officially credit bloggers at with influencing its decision to stop using Lithium Ion batteries, but let the record show that we demanded it of Boeing, which as of now insists that it will keep flying its 787s with the dangerous fiery batteries, even though no cooling system has yet been invented to prevent them from bursting into flames. Is this any way to run an airline?

Here’s Crane-Station’s article of January 28, 2013, nineteen days ago, demanding the change. It was an enlightening discussion. I’ve reprinted many of the Comments below. We’re still waiting for Boeing to do the right thing…

…but at least, according to Bloomberg Friday afternoon, Airbus has come through.

I recommend reading Crane-Station’s full article and all the Comments to get a good understanding of the ethical reasons for this switch. I give highlights below. Comments adding important insights came from Synoia, Ohio Barbarian, cmaukonen, Edward Teller, JohnJ, C-S herself [of course], and others. I specifically suggested that the industry switch back to its previous battery, the one that doesn’t burn. That is exactly what Airbus has now done.

Boeing, on the other hand, is taking a different approach: Boeing has decided to keep the burning batteries, but to encase the batteries in titanium or steel, to vent any toxic gases released during the burn. So, if the passengers die due to Boeing’s fiery batteries, it will not be from the gases being blown into their faces, but from crash, fire, explosion, lack of oxygen, fright, et cetera. I stress: No cooling system for the batteries exists. If Boeing makes good on its threat to continue using them, they will probably continue to burst into flames.

What does one call a move like that? Unwise? Ill-advised? Stupid? Insane? Murderous? The last one. That’s what it is. Selling tickets for a ride on a plane with a burning battery is certainly Premeditated Murder. Here’s Bloomberg‘s report from yesterday afternoon about Boeing’s decision to keep burning.


Crane-Station:  …  This is by no means the first of the list of problems for the 787 Dreamliner. In 2009, regarding multiple production delays, the following problems were reported: “Out of screws”/“Drink cart didn’t have enough room for Sprite”/“Fired the guy who knew how to make the engines” (note: There is always some bit of truth in satire)/“Seats weren’t that comfortable”/“Lost keys to room that has all the wings”/“Had to start over from scratch when someone noticed that all the stenciling read “Boring 787?/”Safety inspectors were able to see the strings”

In a more recent Onion article titled, American Voices, what do you think (about the Dreamliner), random statements include: “What a piece of shit.”  …

normanb:  Lithium batteries burn, they catch on fire. Neil Young tried to have designers build him an economically running (though very expensive to custom-build) hybrid with a new sophisticated Lithium battery. It burned.

One flaw to using Lithium that I notice is that the batteries apparently need to have their own cooling systems, which are not yet designed, and when they are ‘perfected,’ they will greatly compromise the potential energy available to Lithium-powered devices.

To reiterate the obvious, they should fix the problem before they proceed.

C-S:  …  Lithium is a metal, highly reactive and flammable, right? So, what business does it have doing on an airplane, while the passengers are stripping butt-ass naked, going through full-body x-rays, having their bottled shampoo and water stolen, while the real bomb materials are either a) right there on the plane or b) run, in the luggage like shit through a goose in a conveyor belt to the belly of the plane?

I mean for real. Why in the actual fuck am I standing in O’Hare without a belt, with buttcrack pants, while the lithium batteries are already on the goddamn airplane?  …

Me: … I do pay attention to enormous deception in the Lithium industry: Lots of places get called “the Saudi Arabia of Lithium”: Bolivia, Afghanistan, Texas, Chile…

Calling them new Saudi Arabias says to capitalists “Let’s exploit poor people in those locations by having them do the back-hurting work of surface-mining Lithium” which can be done anyplace in the world where people can be made to work insane hours in the hot sun for little pay.

But it is a deception to even say that there can be a Saudi Arabia of Lithium: It isn’t a source of energy, like Saudi Arabia’s Oil, it just stores energy. And obviously, not well enough. Because it exists throughout the Earth’s crust, it can be harvested without hurting anyone’s back, using herbs such as Hemp and Larkspur.

But I don’t think Lithium is a long-term answer at all. We need to either move on to the next battery type, or go back to the previous kind, the kind that didn’t burn.

cmaukonen: Pretty much what you get when you let “Bean Counters” design an aircraft. Or anything else for that matter. Ah capitalism…you gotta love it…or NOT.

Synoia: Who designed the batteries? Who wrote the test plan for the batteries? Who approved the test plan for the batteries? Who was responsible for Quality Assurance of the test plan? Who executed the battery test plan? Who wrote up the results? Who approved production of the batteries from the test results?

Nothing get this far in a complex engineering project without multiple review by many people with many senior “recommendations to proceed” and many “recommended fixes” and whole databases of engineering flaws and fixes during the design process. Where’s this documentation, Boeing?

Especially the email of “concerns” glossed over or suppressed by the politically “astute” rising in the the Boeing management chain (those on the fast track). Let’s see all the doc. (The shareholders should demand it, so should Boeing’s customers). If they don’t produce it, the lawyers will have to “use discovery to find it.”

normanb (to Synoia): Ah, Quality Control. Perhaps that can shed some light on safety concerns. I was once a QC Inspector. I inspected catheters that were be inserted permanently into patients’ hearts.

I wore a magnifying loop in my eye, and took one hundred catheters out of many thousands produced, and I cut them in half, to get a good look at the inside. Out of those one hundred, if and when I found as many as 15 which had “scratched seats” – that is, if it seemed that there could be leakage at the point where the tiny pieces touched – then, I had to flag that lot of 15,000 catheters as questionable.

The next morning, my boss would come in and re-examine the catheters which I had considered questionable. He would then say that they were alright.

Synoia: Let’s discuss Lithium: The stuff that’s in all portable devices and sails through “airport security”. here’s an experiment (please note the caveats after the experiment):

1. Take a drill and drill a hole (very slowly) though a Lithium Battery (somewhere very dry). Heat is not your friend here.

2. Leave the battery in the “somewhere very dry” (if you are not aflame at this point).

3. Fill a bucket with water and put in in a clear place outdoors.

4. Pick up the battery with (very dry) tongs. Put it on a (very dry) spade.

5. Toss the battery into the bucket in (3) with the spade.

6. Run away, then turn and watch.

And remember folks, there are hundreds of these batteries on every flight, made by the lowest bidder to the highest of standards) and have passed through the portals of those “protecting our safety”. Please let me know if you plan to do (1) anywhere near me (I live in SoCal). I’d like to be in Texas before you start. Or Europe.

Lithium is a highly reactive light metal. Lithium, like all light metals loves oxygen. So much that it will steal the oxygen out of water, leaving the hydrogen (sob, divorced from its oxygen) to escape into the air, where the hydrogen will be very eager to be married again (immediately) with oxygen.

Lithium is so aggressive at extracting oxygen out of water that it can even provide the heat (exothermically) to get the released hydrogen and surrounding oxygen above its flashpoint, where the hydrogen and oxygen can have their own (exothermic) party. aka: Flaming ball of fire. Which is why the planes are grounded.

Synoia (to normanb): That worked so well in the US Auto industry that they made it a profit center (spare part & repairs). That did not end well (Japanese car invasion).

Crane-Station (to Synoia): Thank you, Synoia. These are all concrete, reasonable questions that should be explained in an understandable, concise way, without fluff, glossing, missing information and lingo. I am also beginning to wonder about the HazMat angle. What sorts of toxic substances, if any, are in these batteries? Until all of this information is known maybe we should return to the drawing board.
…  Okay, yes, I see your point. Basically, a type of explosive, under the right conditions. An explosive. While I strip my belt, shoes, jacket, and possessions onto a bogus conveyor belt…it is the very airplane itself that has the dangerous stuff on it….those lithium batteries.

Crane-Station (to normanb): Interesting. I worked for a catheter company for 9 years. They were made in Indiana. And that is where I learned just how crucial QC can be. It can be the difference between life and death, and that is not over dramatic in the least.

normanb (to C-S): “Life and death” is why I found it so disturbing that every lot I flagged – and the other Inspectors too – every one was just passed quickly on. Once they got one returned from the company that bought them. The boss that passed them got mad.

It was in Florida. The company was South African-owned, and this was back in the Slavery/Apartheid era. A noisy, smelly back room was filled with machines where poor African Americans made catheters and rubber bottle-stoppers. I had to wear a protective mask and fill in for one of the laborers on a machine during their half-hour unpaid lunch break.

But the hardest part of the job was sunset. Folding the flag. Now, for religious and ethical reasons, I had stopped saluting the flag back in junior high school. But in a work context, I could go ahead and carefully, respectfully fold up the American flag in the proper prescribed way, just like we were taught in Boy Scouts. Then, I had to do the same for the Slavery flag.

I wanted to throw it down and stomp on it. I didn’t.

Edward Teller: Three of our country’s most advanced aircraft – the 787, the F-22 and the F-35 are all having problems that point more toward the concept of how a complicated system is supposed to fit together and actually work than toward single problems. The F-22 oxygen problem for pilots, various F-35 problems, and the 787 lithium battery fiasco show an industry at odds with practical reality.

Synoia: One has to understand batteries (stored energy) and explosions. An explosion is a sudden (very fast) release of stored energy (typically thousands of joules (kj) in less than a second). One watt is one joule per second. A battery is a store of energy. When working under design condition it releases energy (chemical energy) converted to electricity slowly (less than 5 watts/minute) A battery that can deliver 5 watts per minute for 3 hours stores about 1 kj of energy.

When shorted out the battery can deliver the 1 kj of energy very quickly, so quickly that it can heat the battery to a temperature where the lithium can reach flashpoint with the oxygen in the surrounding air. The electrical discharge is thus a fuse for the resulting chemical reaction with the light metal (which wants to donate electron to oxygen, which aggressively wants the elections) to make a metal oxide. Metals freely give up electrons which is why they are good conductors of electricity.

Burning a metal (Metal + Oxygen -> Metal oxide) results in a very hot (fast) fire. Very hot fast fires start other fires very quickly, especially in a plastic interior (such as an airplane). A lithium battery burning is potentially an explosion, and is a very hot fire. The degree of heat (or explosion) depends on how easily the oxygen from the air can react with the metal in the battery.

We are lucky. The 787 fires are relatively slow burning. I do wonder about the mechanical stability (creep and fatigue) from vibration and landing effects on 787 battery construction from the flights (and this would have been tested in a good test regime).

I’d refer you to unexpected effects from metals by flight in the unhappy tale of the De Havilland Comet I.

Ohio Barbarian: Synoia gave a real good explanation. I’ll just add one thing. If you have a cellphone or other mobile device, you have a device powered by a lithium battery, albeit a very small one. Many wristwatches also are powered by lithium batteries. Use that device long enough and you will feel some heat. That’s from the chemical reaction in the battery. But those batteries are tiny, and incapable of generating enough heat to catch the component chemicals on fire.

The batteries on Boeing’s jets are huge in comparison, and thus generate much, much more heat. This was a known problem during the design process, but, as I understand it, the FAA simply accepted Boeing’s assertions that the batteries were safe and would not catch fire. They didn’t run their own, independent tests. Certainly no way to regulate a railroad, or an airline. Oh, yeah, regulation and Big Gubmint bad, private enterprise good.

C-S: NTSB issues sixth update on JAL Boeing 787 battery fire investigation. January 29.

WASHINGTON – The National Transportation Safety Board today released the sixth update on its investigation into the Jan. 7 fire aboard a Japan Airlines Boeing 787 at Logan International Airport in Boston. The examination of the damaged battery continues. The work has transitioned from macroscopic to microscopic examinations and into chemical and elemental analysis of the areas of internal short circuiting and thermal damage.

JohnJ: Reminder: You most likely have one of those lithium bombs in your pocket. It is common in cell phones and MP3 players.

I would also not be too quick to blame the batteries; the charging circuits and voltage regulators used in the discharge are what we call switchers. The switching power supply is a spectacular invention. It is the reason that your electronics chargers are so tiny and run so cool. BUT… they can be very very finicky. A failure in these circuits can cause a perfectly fine lithium battery to fail in the same way.

In my early work prototyping switchers, I used to call it rocket science because when it failed, all you have is tiny burnt pieces spread over a large area to guess what caused the failure. I would add one turn of wire onto the coil and all the parts would literally blow off the circuit board and burn a hole into the board itself. Build the next one without the extra turn and it would run for years.

A top-of-the-head-guess would give a failed charger or regulator a 50-50 chance of causing a battery to fail as well.

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