Airbus examines lithium battery safety, fire suppression

Note: The NTSB Sunday said it still doesn’t know what caused the lithium ion battery to catch fire on the JAL Boeing 787.

Japan has shifted focus to a monitoring system, not the battery. The battery charger has been cleared by the NTSB.

Japan eased safety standards ahead of service, according to a news report.

********************************************************************

Airbus officials are trying to keep a low profile during the focus on Boeing’s 787 lithium ion battery problems, but since the A350 XWB will also have this battery type, Airbus gets pulled into the story whether it wants to or not.

Airbus officials are concerned whatever the US Federal Aviation Administration decides is ultimately necessary for Boeing to fix the lithium ion problems and restore the 787 to service, it might have a knock-on effect to certifying the A350.

There are several issues: fire prevention; fire suppression; battery safety; risks and so on.

Although Airbus responded to some questions at its annual press conference, and has selectively talked about the Boeing situation since, it’s declined useful comment on some specific questions, notably about fire suppression.

As details emerged following the Japan Air Lines Boeing 787 fire, Boeing indicated that the airplane doesn’t have fire suppression around the lithium-ion batteries. Several news stories have been written about this, including this one we previously linked. This, of course, begs the question: will the Airbus A350 have fire suppression around its lithium-ion batteries, which are of a different design than those in the 787? We asked Airbus and got this answer:

“Airbus will carefully study any recommendations that come out of the 787 investigation and evaluate whether they would apply to the A350.”

Well, that was certainly helpful.

As it turns out, Airbus has talked about lithium ion batteries before. Airbus in March 2012 made a presentation on lithium-ion batteries at a Flight Safety Conference in Berlin. Airbus on Lithium-Ion Battery Safety

There are a couple of key slides in the presentation that deserve calling out here. The first set deal with risks and causes:

Risks

Causes

And the types of lithium batteries:

Types

Note on the following slide, fire suppression is discussed in the lower right hand corner.

Suppression

And this one on fire suppression:

Suppression 2

And another on the challenges of fighting thermal runaway:

Suppression 3

The following slide makes reference to Airbus’ design for the lithium-ion batteries allows for venting within the battery, a key point the MIT professor makes with respect to the 787 (see the link at the end of this post).

Safety

We asked Airbus for a walk-through of these slides; it declined. We asked Airbus about its fire suppression design for the batteries. It declined comment.

Given Boeing’s previous comments about the inability to suppress a thermal runaway, and the Airbus slides above, it is reasonable to conclude Airbus does not have a fire suppression system in the A350, either. Instead, it made the decision to stay with traditional hydraulic and pneumatic architecture for many of the systems, which results in a requirement for about one-third of the electrical power needed on the 787 and less than that of the A330.

Airbus also said it has four ion batteries rather than two on the 787, thus spreading the load. The slides above also suggest Airbus is venting the batteries themselves, which according to MIT, Boeing is not. Boeing declined comment.

The New York Times has this article that talks about the cozy relationship between Boeing and Japan, relating it to the selection of a Japanese company to supply the batteries for the 787.

Richard Aboulafia thinks the 787′s grounding could be 6-9 months, echoing sentiment expressed by Ernie Arvai at AirInsight. As we reported Sunday, an official with MIT thinks the airplane could be grounded for a year if the lithium-ion batteries have to be replaced and the supporting systems redesigned. This article refers to venting the battery, at Airbus infers in its slide show.

43 comments on “Airbus examines lithium battery safety, fire suppression

  1. Interesting slides/ comments. Of course Airbus is keeping its head down. Everything Boeing is looking for decoys to spread pain..

  2. I note that virtually everyone concentrates on an external ( to battery) event starting the ” thermal” runaway process. But absent some VERY rough handling, why would shipment of LI type batteries ever result in a fire ?

    The obvious answer seems to be either packaging which allows contacts to make a rapid discharge- sparks to start a fire, etc OR a manufacturing defect of some sort.

    In the above discussion re containers, it appears that LI on fire is about like thermite or magnesium – next to impossible to contain or put out.

    Which makes me wonder about using water on hot metals – if put on to soon – major issues result

    It sure makes me wonder that since various types of SAFT – nickel- silver- cad- etc batteries seem to have a well developed track record, that the so called weight savings are hardly worth it .

    ” For want of a nail- a kingdom was lost ” may need to be reworded
    to

    ” For saving 100# a Billion $$ was lost “

  3. Seems to me now that Airbus can benefit just as much as Boeing from the B-787 investigations. With the A-350 about to begin flight testing perhaps this year, and the fact it too has Li-Ion batteries means it may be looked at a little more closely by the EASA.

    If the future of new airliner esign rests in Li-Ion batteries, it would make sense for both Boeing and Airbus to work together in developing a standard level of safety for their respective airplanes.

    • “Seems to me now that Airbus can benefit just as much as Boeing from the B-787 investigations.” Too true.
      I think Airbus is staying quiet because anything else would be imprudent. The fact that they don’t want to comment on their situation or design could be to avoid closer examination (naive if true) or they merely don’t want to distract the ongoing investigations in one way or another.
      It might also be that Airbus, like Boeing was, is fully confident in their design. The question would be, do they have a reason to be?

      • Airbus seems to have taken a much more premeditated and proactive path for their design.
        For Airbus this thing revolves around their measures being deemed sufficient and the LI-Ion not being forbidden.

        ( For Boeing the effort to fix the existing solution versus change over to another battery type could well be of similar proportion. Under that auspice will Boeing push for entagling their competition? )

      • I’m sure Airbus is fully involved with the investigation into the B787 trouble. All Li-ion battery builders and operators will be heard on their experiences.

        Aircraft safety is not a competitive field – all aircraft must be safe and thus adhere to the same rules and regulations. Since the FAA or EASA do not own all expertise in any field, they usually ask the OEM and tier 1 companies to “help” write the rules. Inviting all stakeholders to weigh in and add to the rules makes the final product more comprehensive and acceptable to all stake holders.

      • I imagine Airbus is avoiding comment to so that nothing they say is taken wildly out of context in some Fox News article and then being debated to the death on a.net and elsewhere.

        Be honest, if they say they’ve got it covered they’ll be “arrogant” – if they say they need to change things they’ll be “in deep s**t” – if they say they don’t know what consequences there will be they’ll be “clueless”.

  4. As I recall – the AIA was set up many many years ago in the U.S to share such safety items.

    And I’m sure both the U.S and Euro Agencies work together on safety items

    The reason being years ago that the whole industry would suffer if any airline or specifically aircraft manuf had a serious safety issue.

    For example – the Lockheed electra engine mount ” whirl mode ” issue which eventually was solved – but virtually killed the commercial viability – Boeing provided major assistance in analysis and equipment ( hydraulic mass vibrators ) mounted on wings- winggtips to induce bending and flapping modes in flight.( flutter )

    What they found was the lockheed wing was much stronger and stiffer than they thought- which actually contributed to the problem – eventually traced to poor design of engine mounts weakened by hard landings . .

    The turboprop use for commercial took a major setback as a result- many years before recovery – coupled with the dawn of the jet age.

    Hopefully, this issue with burning batteries will not devastate the 787- but it will push out the breakeven even further.

    A billion hefre- a billion there – pretty soon its real money !

  5. Just an idea …
    The SAFT battery may be certified now, with 20 cells they will be less saturated that the 19 cells of the Yuasa pack, and a lot better cooled …

    May be the actual batteries are just undersized in the B787 !

    I think, Boeing may ask SAFT to forward 2 or 3 packs A350 type, the job may be done, with 2 (Or 3) Saft paks au lieu de 1 Yuasa pack !

    • “May be the actual batteries are just undersized in the B787 !”

      It is actually the opposite. The 787 batteries are too large. Size is very important for Li-ion batteries. The smaller units have a much better capacity to shed heat. Therefore the larger the battery is, the more prone it is to overheating; which can lead to a thermal runaway. The closer an individual cell is to the centre of the unit, the more susceptible it is to overheating.

      I believe that is why Airbus uses four units instead of only one like Boeing does. And if Airbus had put all its batteries in a single unit, it would still be considerably smaller than the Boeing one.

    • You are probably correct. Having two batteries in parallel rather than a single one larger would limit the risks and mitigate the impact of a battery failure..
      I am pretty surprised that this was not the chosen solution. I can only attribute this to ‘weight’ desperation with the Boeing engineers. :)

    • Yuasa/Boeing battery 8 x LVP65
      prismatic cells nom. 3.7V,65Ah, 232Wh/l 5C~=325A max discharge. lithium cobalt oxide based cathode
      These are tripple pack cells in welded enclosure. ( The space qualified ones seem to be single pack cells )
      My very tentative guess is that Saft/Airbus use 8? x VL45E or some close relative.
      cylindral cells nom. 3.6V,45Ah, 314Wh/l, 250A~=5.5C max discharge. nickel oxide based cathode.
      .

  6. Rensim :
    Just an idea …
    I think, Boeing may ask SAFT to forward 2 or 3 packs A350 type, the job may be done, with 2 (Or 3) Saft paks au lieu de 1 Yuasa pack !

    How’s that going to help if i) the batteries don’t appear to be the problem, and ii) making changes to the system is likely going to be a fairly major job, involving hardware (e.g. making space for additional batteries, additional wiring (shudder)) and software (controller for 4/6 battery packs instead of two?

    It may get the job done. About 18 months from now.

  7. Ok, Normand, for the thermal; concentration and the need of more dispersion !

    That is the purpose of the separation & cooling of the Saft cells and packaging !

    But I still think the B787 Batteries may be undersized too, and prone to over-heathing when they strart the APU, for example !

    The A350 seems to have 2 ahead, and two aft paks of batteries somewhat like the B787, the duplication, may be only for some redondancy need as well …

    • The 787 seems to use both batteries ( one battery – APU Starter – GeneratorStarter – train each ) to start the APU in regular use. Fall back is Main only or APU ony ( with associated higher current draw for the single battery )

    • So if I follow you, what I am saying about heat dissipation is actually part of the Saft concept. And in regards to Boeing, not only is the concept wrong, but on top of that the single battery is actually to small for the job it is asked to do when starting the APU.

      Have I got this right?

      • And I could add that the main battery is also potentially too small for the task it is required to do when the parking brakes are selected on.

  8. From the Tribune article:

    “It (787) is highly innovative and its safety is also advanced, but it’s also very similar in design to the 777,” said Kinya Fujiishi, an aviation journalist who sat on the panel. “This is why we thought it would be fine to revise the rule.”

    So aviation journalists are involved in setting standards in Japan. Innovative.

  9. Andreas :

    Rensim :
    Just an idea …
    I think, Boeing may ask SAFT to forward 2 or 3 packs A350 type, the job may be done, with 2 (Or 3) Saft paks au lieu de 1 Yuasa pack !

    How’s that going to help if i) the batteries don’t appear to be the problem, and ii) making changes to the system is likely going to be a fairly major job, involving hardware (e.g. making space for additional batteries, additional wiring (shudder)) and software (controller for 4/6 battery packs instead of two?
    It may get the job done. About 18 months from now.

    And how much delay if Yuasa has to perform a new design and certification !
    I just think they have the chance Yuasa and Saft work with the same voltage and same technology, so external Hardware and Software may be used from the same basis, at least they wouldn’t start from the scratch !

  10. Interesting concept:
    “Japan’s government agencies often convene blue-ribbon panels of outside experts to review regulatory policy changes, as the transport ministry did for aircraft safety rules in 2007″.

    “… said Kinya Fujiishi, an aviation journalist who sat on the panel. “This is why we thought it would be fine to revise the rule.” ”

    Most of the rationalisation is provided via Masatoshi Harigae, head of aviation at Japan’s Aerospace Exploration Agency.

  11. Normand Hamel :
    And I could add that the main battery is also potentially too small for the task it is required to do when the parking brakes are selected on.

    Without serious fault found, in the circuitery, it may be wise to have a close look to the power needs and the thermal dissipation, of the battery system, indeed !
    This may be a strong cause, and sure Airbus and Saft consider the case, and seem to have worked more cautiously to avoid these inconvenients ….

    • I always thought that the Airbus battery set up was much safer than Boeing’s, even it uses the same scary Li-ion technology. But with the additional arguments you have provided I am more convinced than ever that if Boeing had selected the Saft concept, or the equivalent, we would not be where we are today.

      And I am afraid that this Boeing lack of circumspection might have repercussions throughout the industry if the FAA decides to ban Li-ion battery from aircraft electrical systems.

      • Not sure at all these studies where disponible when Boeing and FAA begun to rule on the use of these kind of battery Li-Ion, with aviation …. the accidents recently in the late years made people more conscious of this technology risk !

        A return to Nickel-Cad is, effectively, not to be ruled out !

        I think decisions will be made next month, FAA can’t await more, they may have to eat their hat, but Boeing need an answer !

  12. This may happen to A, B and the others …

    So, be careful Andreas, we don’t know who may be the next on the list …
    Airbus has been very lucky, not to be grounded very seriously with QF32, and to save their ass, with AF 447 !

    FAA have to help Boeing to find a way to get out of this mess ASAP !
    I just hope the FAA EGO will not delay the solution !

      • “I may say that this is the greatest factor: the way in which the expedition is equipped, the way in which every difficulty is foreseen, and precautions taken for meeting or avoiding it. Victory awaits him who has everything in order, luck, people call it. Defeat is certain for him who has neglected to take the necessary precautions in time, this is called bad luck.”

        Roald Amundsen

  13. Uwe :
    Yuasa/Boeing battery 8 x LVP65
    prismatic cells nom. 3.7V,65Ah, 232Wh/l 5C~=325A max discharge. lithium cobalt oxide based cathode
    These are tripple pack cells in welded enclosure. ( The space qualified ones seem to be single pack cells )
    My very tentative guess is that Saft/Airbus use 8? x VL45E or some close relative.
    cylindral cells nom. 3.6V,45Ah, 314Wh/l, 250A~=5.5C max discharge. nickel oxide based cathode.
    .

    Thanks UWE, may be I have Mixed infos betweem Ni-Cad & Li-Ion, on A.net & elsewhere , any link, since I did not find nothing through the OEM to be very sure on the cells qty and power !

  14. My interpretation of what OV says above:

    Airbus = “The way in which every difficulty is foreseen, and precautions taken for meeting or avoiding it. Victory awaits him who has everything in order, luck, people call it.”

    Boeing = “Defeat is certain for him who has neglected to take the necessary precautions in time, this is called bad luck.”

    That is pretty much in line with how I have been looking at the situation since 2003/2004.

  15. “Rensim: FAA have to help Boeing to find a way to get out of this mess ASAP !
    I just hope the FAA EGO will not delay the solution !”

    A cooperative, flexible and helpfull national certifying authority, making sure they do not delay the business.

    A Deathtrap.

  16. From AIN:

    Bizjets Currently Not Flying With Lithium Batteries.

    The Cessna Citation CJ4 is currently the only business jet certified with (but no longer flying with) a lithium-ion main-ship battery, using lithium-iron phosphate, not the lithium-cobalt oxide battery found on the Boeing 787, which is currently grounded in the wake of battery fires.

    FAA special conditions were issued for certification of lithium-ion batteries in the new Sovereign; similar conditions applied to the CJ4. In 2010, Cessna also announced plans for “dual lithium-ion batteries” in the new Citation X. However, CJ4s no longer feature lithium-ion batteries, after a main battery fire on a CJ4 plugged into ground power resulted in an AD mandating replacement with nickel-cadmium or lead-acid batteries. The FAA “discovered that the cause [of the CJ4 fire] was that a mechanic had intentionally bypassed the safety systems built into the battery,” an FAA spokeswoman said.

    Only two other business jets were slated to have lithium-ion batteries and were issued special conditions to do so: the Spectrum S-40 (since canceled) and the Gulfstream G650. “The G650 has lead-acid and Ni-Cad batteries,” a spokeswoman for the OEM told AIN. “Early in the G650 program, Gulfstream did investigate using Li-ion batteries. However, we made a change during the development program to today’s batteries.”

  17. Pingback: Odds and Ends: Airbus’ frustration over A350 fallout–blame yourself; DC-10 grounding retrospective « Leeham News and Comment

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