Bosses at Boeing face the ultimate challenge
INNOVATION TALK:While we in Ireland fret about the damage to the international perception of our well-regarded standards of food manufacturing, in the US similar concerns have arisen about the international perception of their high standards of civilian aircraft manufacturing.
The new pride of Boeing, the B-787 Dreamliner, has been grounded indefinitely. There have been various faults reported: a cracked windscreen and fuel leaks. But in reaction to an emergency landing of an All Nippon Airlines B-787 due to in-cabin smoke, and an on-board fire in a Japanese Airlines B-787 parked at a gate at Boston Logan airport during routine cabin cleaning, authorities worldwide have indefinitely forbidden any further flights by any of the 50 B-787 aircraft so far delivered. Boeing has orders and customer options for 850 of the type.
The fires have been in the electrics. Boeing has aggressively innovated the electrical system for the B-787. Until the B-787, the inflight de-icing of the leading edge of wings and tail surfaces has been from hot air bled from an aircraft’s engines. By using purely electrical heating for the inflight de-icing subsystems on the B-787, mechanical pneumatic subsystems have been replaced by far lighter electrical-only components, while the avoidance of hot-air bleeding from the jet turbines increases fuel efficiency.
The electrical system is powered by advanced lithium-ion batteries, which deliver about six times the power of the familiar lead-acid car battery, with a smaller volume and lighter mass. Lithium-ion batteries are now common in laptops and mobile phones, some hybrid and electric cars, trains, buses and indeed aircraft: the Airbus A380 superjumbo uses them (only) for emergency lighting.
But lithium-ion batteries are challenging technology. Some Samsung laptops, for example, had issues with overheating and spontaneous ignition from their lithium-ion batteries. The US Federal Aviation Authority has issued warnings about carrying lithium-ion batteries as cargo after a UPS B-747 jumbo crashed near Dubai in September 2010 with a fire in its hold from a consignment of the batteries.
The battery recharging subsystem for the B-787 is made by Securaplane in Tucson, Arizona. In November 2006, during the design of the recharging subsystem for the B-787, Securaplane lost an entire building due to a fire caused by an ignition of a lithium-ion battery. The batteries are made by GS Yuasa in Japan. The circuitry to connect the recharger to the battery is supplied by Thales in France.
With multiple parties involved, the US and international authorities clearly have a complex task to understand the cause, or causes, of the B-787 electrical system fires.
The Wall Street Journal reported on January 22nd last that there are already frictions between the various investigative teams involved. There are views reported in the Seattle Times and separately Japan Times that resolution of the issue may take several months at a minimum.