Dreamliner's Battery Woes A Deja Vu Moment For Aviation Industry

Lithium-ion batteries sparked a crisis for Boeing's Dreamliner 787 — but the crisis is not an unprecedented one. Four decades ago, a very similar transition to new battery technology in airplanes yielded similar problems. Audie Cornish describes what happened then — and what lessons might be learned as lithium-ion batteries become the next generation that power planes.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

As we heard in that report, lithium ion batteries help power Boeing's fleet of 787 Dreamliners, which have been grounded. Now, this technologically sophisticated aircraft was tested for thousands of hours before airlines took it to the skies. That's why the recent overheating and fires in its batteries came as a surprise to many. But to some in the aviation industry those battery problems are déjà vu. Flashback to the early 1970s.

STEPHEN TRIMBLE: And that was the last time there was a transition from one kind of battery technology to a newer kind. That was the nickel-cadmium battery.

CORNISH: Steven Trimble writes for Flight International magazine. He says that for decades, airplanes used the same type of battery as cars: the lead acid battery. But eventually some planes with new sophisticated electronics needed a lighter, better power source.

TRIMBLE: And nickel-cadmium is to its previous generation what lithium ion is today to nickel-cadmium. It gives you more power for the amount of weight that you have to use.

CORNISH: Forty years ago, that new battery was promising as it became more widely used in small, private aircraft. Then the nickel-cadmium growing pains began.

TRIMBLE: What they saw was a whole series of battery failures across several different types of aircraft - batteries overheating and fires. And our magazine was covering it at the time. And there were quotes from that era of people saying that they're sitting on a ticking time bomb because of these batteries.

CORNISH: The National Transportation Safety Board documented nearly one battery incident every month in 1972. None caused a crash or fatality in the U.S. but they were serious. Just ask aircraft mechanic Lee Coffman. He remembers when a Learjet had to land in Amarillo, Texas in the 1970s because of one of its nickel-cadmium batteries.

Coffman, dressed in protective gear, rushed out to the plane as soon as it parked. He says the battery was so hot that he had to extract it wearing asbestos gloves.

LEE COFFMAN: The temperature was such that the paint on the stainless steel case was already changing colors.

CORNISH: Coffman left it smoldering on the tarmac that afternoon. The next day, it was still too hot to touch.

COFFMAN: The inside of the battery had just burned and melted in on itself. It looked like you had taken a torch in there and just melted the core of the battery down to a pile in the bottom of the battery box.

CORNISH: Engineers eventually redesigned the nickel-cadmium battery and it became the industry standard for airliners.

In the future, will the standard be lithium ion batteries? Boeing wants it to be, at least for its Dreamliner. Boeing hopes the FAA will soon approve the company's proposed solution for overheating and fires.

As for some of its competition, Airbus recently announced that it's dropping plans to use lithium ion in its newest plane, the A350. The European manufacturer is reverting to what it describes as the proven and mastered nickel-cadmium.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: This is NPR News.

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