EDITOR: | February 1st, 2013

Boeing 787 Battery Problems spark a Revolution in Battery Technology

| February 01, 2013 | No Comments

graphite batteriesThe two fire incidents involving Boeing 787 aircraft, occurring within ten days of each other, have both been attributed to its batteries, creating a messy situation for Boeing, which has so far delivered only 50 units. Modern airplanes  need many batteries, but play a central role in the 787 and no other airliner carries so many of them. They are used to actuate a number of cabin systems to fly-by-wire hardware, re placing the old and heavier hydraulic or mechanical technologies. Nevertheless, Boeing chose just one type of battery: lithium-ion. Li-ion batteries include positive and negative electrodes which are separated by a layer of plastic. Voltage is generated by ions migrating back and forth through an electrolyte, a non-aqueous liquid, between the electrodes. The negative electrodes are made of graphite while the positive electrode can use any one of a variety of materials. The problem lies with the positive electrode. The ones GS Yuasa supplies to Boeing use lithium cobalt dioxide. However, lithium cobalt dioxide is considered to be very dangerous as an electrode material; this makes them a fire hazard If the temperature exceeds a critical point, such as in the case of overcharging.

That is what probably happened to the two All-Nippon Boeing 787said airline officials: the battery voltage exceeded the voltage limit and the similarities in the battery remains have pointed to a common cause. National Transportation Safety Board officials are not convinced yet, but while there is yet no consensus on the cause of the battery fires, engineers and scientists are increasingly recommending lithium iron phosphate (LFP) as alternatives. These have been used in cars with hybrid engines. LFP’s have a lower energy density than a lithium cobalt dioxide battery, meaning they need to be larger to produce equivalent power, which means that where space and weight are issues, such as in aircraft, lithium cobalt dioxide or other so-called layer oxides have been preferred. Moreover, the high visibility of the Boeing 787 means that problems with its batteries could lead to a replacement of Li-ion batteries altogether, virtually killing Li-ion technology.

When problems occur on phones, laptops or other small consumer electronics, they can be forgotten. When they occur on a passenger airplane – especially in view of the ultra-strict standards of the aerospace industry –  and one touted as the world’s most advanced, the stakes, the risks are much higher and the effects more far-reaching. For now, all operational Boeing 787’s have been grounded and Boeing’s rival, Airbus, will surely benefit from the technical investigation as it prepares to launch the A-350 XWB. The will benefit tremendously from the Boeing’s teething problems, especially when it comes to the battery issues. The 787 could be grounded for months; if batteries are confirmed as the culprit the world is in for a battery revolution.

The end of Li-Ion battery technology is no small detail: in 2012, it has been estimated that some two billion units of such batteries were sold. The battery ‘revolution’, meanwhile, could lead to the dominance of LFP batteries, which have already found their way into many laptop computers to avert the fire hazards. Elon Musk, the founder of PayPal and co-founder and CEO of Tesla Motors said that batteries used in the 787 are “inherently unsafe.” He should know as his Tesla company’s electric sports car, the ‘Model S’, endured battery fires. In 2011, Tesla definitely adopted the LFP battery to avoid the risk. The Bolloré Group, a French battery specialist, has been working in partnership with Hydro-Quebec and other partners to develop the LFP battery and is using them in its ‘Bluecar’ electric car program.

Bolloré procures iron phosphate in Candiac, which makes a powder known as Phostec Lithium subsequently sold to the manufacturers of batteries. The German Sud-Chemie AG has invested some 80 million dollars to build a new production facility in Candiac, near Montreal (Quebec) to make lithium iron phosphate (LFP). The facility will be the world’s largest for the production of Lithium-Iron-Phosphate material. Hydro-Québec  has been negotiating with several industrial groups, interested in using lithium iron phosphate batteries to launch the new generation of batteries including the Taiwanese group Advanced Lithium Electrochemistry. If there is a positive side to the Boeing 787 battery debacle it is that research into battery technology will advance, attracting much millions, if not billions, in extra research dollars. One of the avenues being explored to improve LFP battery performance is through graphene.  Focus Graphite Inc. (TSX-V:FMS; OTCQX:FCSMF), which owns a stake in Grafoid Inc, has agreed to work with Hydro Quebec to develop the next generation rechargeable batteries using graphene with lithium iron phosphate materials.


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