Boeing forecasted much of the future success of the company on the 787 Dreamliner, as the development of the the aircraft represented movement towards energy efficiency and innovative technology,. Unfortunately, the highly anticipated plane is now the subject of a federal investigation to determine why lithium-ion batteries caught fire on board. A history of the batteries shows various difficulties in different applications, including in electric powered cars, military vessels, laptops and handheld devices.
After being forced to land in Japan due to smoke alarms alerting the crew, fire fighters had to spend 40 minutes extinguishing a fire in the rear of the aircraft. After an initial investigation, officials found that chemicals may have seeped from a swollen and discolored battery in the front of the plane, suggesting smoke had been inside. It may be months before investigators identify exactly what happened and come up with a plan to prevent future cases.
Boeing officials said the planes have a multi-layered system to contain any issues that may appear and have air quality systems to vent smoke or fumes to the outside of the plane. Engineers and the F.A.A. discovered the batteries containers succumbed to intense heat caused by the battery issue. Robert A. McKenzie, an electrical engineer and an aviation lawyer, said, “It might not be the underlying technology; it might be the design of this particular unit.” Dozen of fires in the aviation industry have occurred on cargo and passenger planes as computer systems heated up.
Still, the 787 Dreamliner is paving the way for increased fuel efficiency in the aviation industry. Boeing can see the benefits the lithium-ion technology and will be working under tighter guidelines to stay on the forefront of innovation. Just as in the early days of aviation, “you cannot do pioneering work without assuming some risk,” said Hans Weber, president of Tecop, an aviation consulting firm.