A380 has, A350 will have lithium-ion batteries

Focus on the Boeing 787’s mishap last Monday comes, naturally, on the fire involving the lithium-ion battery. The battery, or Li-ion for short, is considered hazardous in many applications and in air cargo shipping.

Two Boeing 747-400 cargo planes were carrying a large shipment of Li-ions. One for sure–UPS in Doha–crashed after these batteries caught fire. Another, a Korean Air Cargo flight, was carrying a large shipment. The airplane crashed into the ocean and if the cause was traced to these, we haven’t seen it–but the suspicious arose early.

While the 787’s use of Li-ion has attracted headlines, the use in airplane applications is more common than has been recognized.

The Airbus A380 uses lithium batteries to power its emergency lighting system. The US FAA set special conditions when certifying the aircraft. Airbus says “the batteries are small, limited, and are not in a frequently-active charging/discharging function.”

The Airbus A350 will have Lit-ion batteries. Airbus touts this plan on its A350XWB website:

Airbus also has looked at new ways to generate electricity aboard the aircraft itself. The A350 XWB features a new lithium-ion battery that marks a significant improvement on the Cd-Ni unit used in other models.

The battery contains less hazardous material, which makes it safer to handle. Adding to the benefits, it has a higher power and energy density, and low maintenance requirements, all while lasting up to three times longer than the Cd-Ni.

Aviation International News looked at issues surrounding Lit-Ion batteries last October. Acting upon the recommendation of Cessna, the FAA ordered removal of Lit-ion batteries from the CJ4 corporate jet. A couple of other corporate jets have these batteries.

AIN had this story about stricter rules transporting Li-ion batteries, in which the hazards are discussed.

One of our regular readers and commenters notes that “the A350 architecture… has four 28v Li-ion batteries, meaning there are 28 Li-ion cells on-board…, compared with only 14 on the 787…. Clearly a huge cause for concern… unless Airbus designs the A350 to properly manage this known failure mode, which I am sure they have done.”

The cause for concern involving Li-ion is a condition called thermal runaway. The same reader immediately above, a Boeing employee, also wrote, “Thermal runaway is a known failure mode for Lithium-ion batteries, as it is for Ni-Cad. The 787 is designed to manage this exact failure. The evident lack of damage to the JAL airplane (plainly visible in the NTSB photo) is a testament to this fact.”

The electronics bay doesn’t have a fire suppression system. A Boeing employee told us that the bay has relatively few flammables and they are all known (i.e. the battery), so it is an easy problem to design the compartment to handle that fire event. He adds that the reason cargo holds need suppression is because they contain flammables which are an unquantified variable and cannot be reasonably contained as a part of the design, outside of a suppression system.

An aside: Readers know we have a warped sense of humor. We found the following in the Comment section on The Seattle Times and thought it a pretty funny quip. Boeing, as we all know, says the issues with the 787 are teething problems. Says a Times reader:

“The Boeing Dental Plan will cover these teething problems will 787 is going to be toothless soon.”

45 Comments on “A380 has, A350 will have lithium-ion batteries

  1. I assume the issue is that the A380 lithium ion batteries haven’t caught fire while the 787 batteries now have. Indeed it’s the second on board electrical fire on a 787 in a relatively short period of time. Furthermore, battery fires were an identified risk and it seems the measures taken specifically to avoid such fires failed to kick in.

    • LI-* Battery technology is so diverse that risk comparisons are rather difficult.
      Even cell formfactors ( prismatic, cylindrical) weight in on failure potential.
      Additionally how cheap do you want to go. The Dreamliner was explicitly marketed
      as cheap ( to build, to buy, to have ).

      • There is nothing cheap about the Dreamliner. Except of course the first 800 aircraft that were sold at an unreasonable price.

  2. The Airbus A380 uses lithium batteries to power its emergency lighting system. The US FAA set special conditions when certifying the aircraft. Airbus says “the batteries are small, limited, and are not in a frequently-active charging/discharging function.”

    In contrast to the 787, the lithium batteries are not located in the main avionics bay on the A380. They are located in the secondary upper avionics bay, which is placed on the extreme forward end of the upper deck in the crown of the fuselage (aft of the crew rest area for all A380 operators except for EK).

    The location of all of the batteries used on the A380 is shown on page 9 of this link, while the image on page 4 of this link illustrates well the location of the respective fwd avionics bays. Finally, the image of the air systems ventilation of the A380s forward fuselage is available on page 50 (3.16) here.

  3. Where can one get information on the (electrical) architecture for these aircraft? Is such information easy to come by?

  4. Even Li-Ion batteries that are not connected to anything, or in a charging and discharging state can be dangerous, as B-747-400Fs UPS-6 and Asiana-991 showed us.

  5. “One of our regular readers and commenters notes that “the A350 architecture… has four 28v Li-ion batteries, meaning there are 28 Li-ion cells on-board…, compared with only 14 on the 787…. Clearly a huge cause for concern… unless Airbus designs…”

    I remember another user said in the same topic

    (#43) “Similar requirements. However I can imagine Batteries for emergency lighting are different. The frequencies of charging and amount of energy used while discharging for starting an APU are possibly different. So maybe similar at first sight, but apples/oranges after a second look. “

    As Airbus confirmed. Something certainly known by our regular reader, but he didn’t mention for some reason.

    If Boeing followed the right design guidelines and certification requirements on these APU batteries is on of the topics reviewed by the FAA.

    No doubt Bregier/ Enders send out one of his staff for a status report on Li Ion batteries on Airbus aircraft next week, just to make sure..

  6. It was my understanding that Li-ion on A350 were for the same function as for the A380 (emergency lighting)

    Note that 28V batteries are not really ‘biggies’

    • Airbus does evolution:
      A380 : Li-Ion for ancillary function
      A350 : Li-Ion for core function.

      Energy: 28V * 65Ah ~= 0.5kWh energy stored. ( for the 787 bat type )

  7. Normand Hamel :
    There is nothing cheap about the Dreamliner.

    That is the part were reality diverged significantly from projection.
    I am sure Boeing put potential suppliers under significant pricing pressure. We’ve seen the repercussions.
    Recently Boeing has indicated strong interest in “leaning” their suppliers even more.
    in principal pricing and in their push for “wet my beak” style compensation.

    • If by cheap you mean only pricing, yes maybe. But I don’t think it’s build with cheap materials or components. Quite the contrary. That’s why I was so surprised by the initial pricing policy. “If we can sell it cheap enough the customers will come” was apparently the Boeing motto. They did come. And the Dreamliner is the most successful commercial program in history. Or is it?

      • Having had the selection bias a bit too much over on the money side would explain some issues imho.(i.e. no quality margins)
        Even (Especially!) with chinese stuff the wholesale people get what they pay for. ( the final user though probably not. )

  8. CBL :
    Note that 28V batteries are not really ‘biggies’

    My understanding is that the 787 batteries would be much bigger than they are on the A350, because of the all-electric architecture.

    • The battery involved in this incident is specifically the one used to start the APU if there is no ground supply hooked up (or main engines running). The APU generates the power to start main engines. There is no way a battery could start the main engines. It requires something like 200HP to turn over the engines. The other batteries are probably to power avionics and systems when there is no other power sources available.

      • Yes GT, what you say about the horsepower required makes a lot of sense. But my question remains unanswered. Are the 787 batteries (not just the APU battery) more potent on the Dreamliner than the ones on the A350?

  9. Uwe :
    Having had the selection bias a bit too much over on the money side would explain some issues imho.(i.e. no quality margins).

    These days it’s rather hard to certify an aircraft for ETOP operations with no quality margins. I don’t mean to be rude, but I would say your comment doesn’t hold the road.

    • “less margin” is not “no margin”.

      ETOPS out of the box is a Paper Trail Etops. Nothing hands on tangible.
      This is at the core of why the FAA will revisit the 787 certification process.
      Japanese authorities declined to accept this certification style.
      ( the Aviationweek article is paywalled.)
      EASA in their relation to Airbus seem to go for ETOPS trust build by hours flown too.

  10. There is a little piece of wrong info here. The second 747 that crashed was from Asiana Cargo not Korean…

    • I don’t know about it being all that flimsy – the steel(?) casing looks to be 2-3mm thick and totally undamaged in the high-res pictures on the NTSB page (incidently, why is everyone re-posting the second picture? I find the first picture more useful…)

      I’m guessing the denting is from manhandling the box out of the aircraft – and I’m also wondering if the lid was removed by firefighters (thereby allowing the two-foot flames to escape?), if it was compromised by the battery fire itself or if it was simply removed by the NTSB. If the lid was still on, then I imagine the fire would have been well contained.

      My guess is that the attempts to remove the box may have damaged the seal to the lid (they clearly put an axe through the power cables – something I noticed in the earlier NTSB picture of the bay – so maybe they axed the side of the box as well) – and breaking that seal caused the infamous flames to start leaking out. At that point they would have concentrated on getting the thing outside ASAP… then the lid came off during the evacuation or was taken off once it was on the ground, fully exposing the fire (two-foot flames, etc.). I expect the box *would indeed* have contained the fire otherwise.

  11. Several thousand fliers of electric powered model aircraft have between them probably amassed the biggest database of the characteristics of lithium ion batteries and safety issues arising from their use. Suggest Boeing expand their investigations to include records of fires and hardware.

    • they (used to) have a high burnreate 😉

      On the other hand those are Li-Po(lymer) batteries that are optimised for high current discharge and low weight. And those specimens are not only improving in those parameters but also in fault behaviour.
      On the third hand there are enough use cases in military, marine and spacecraft applications
      to take reference from.

      apropos: I placed an information request with SAFT re the A350 batterie tech : sorry to decline but this is confidential

  12. Either lithium ion batteries will be banned on commercial airliners including both the 787 and 350 or Boeing switches to Saft as a supplier.

    • SecuraPlane advertises that they provide the battery loader for the 787:

      The Li-Ion battery they provide for the G650 has similarities with 787 item.

      and they seem to provide the Start Power Unit:

      and some ancillary stuff like wireless.

      What is known about this company.

    • There are three possible scenarios:

      1- The existing battery problem is solved and corrective measures implemented.
      2- Boeing has to find another supplier (Saft?).
      3- The FAA forces Boeing (and Airbus) to switch from Li-ion to Ni-Cd.

      – The first scenario is the most desirable from a technical, financial and political perspective. It is also the most probable. But from a safety perspective it is questionable.

      – The second scenario is very unlikely. It would be an extremely expensive proposition and would delay the re-certification for an amount of time that is hard to evaluate, but which can be estimated to be well over a year.

      – The third scenario would nearly brake Boeing. It would bring the whole program to a complete standstill and jeopardize its future. The complexities of its ramifications are overwhelming. It would call for a very costly and prolong re-certification period. It would also add a few hundred pounds of dead weight. But from a safety perspective, dead weight is far more desirable than dead bodies.

      I hope that Boeing and the legal authorities involved will quickly find a solution that is acceptable to all, and which can be readily implemented. That is my most optimistic scenario. It is also the one that the FAA would like to be able to sanction because it would bring an immense sense of relief to just about everybody, including Airbus.

  13. why are li-ion batteries working in cars/hybrid/and not in airplanes

    • Because Boeing selected the most dangerous variety of Li-ion: Lithium Cobalt.

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