So what has become of the new Boeing Dreamliner? Since its grounding in January owing to its twitchy lithium-ion batteries, there’s been little news. This is an unusually long grounding for a plane, especially one as technologically advanced as the 787. I know a little about this kind of thing, which is why I’ve been following this story keenly for a long time. In the early weeks of the 747 back in the late 1960s, the entire fleet was nearly grounded when a sensor my dad designed for it didn’t work as planned. (Turned out literally to be a bug in the system; a tiny insect tripped a fire warning requiring a 747 to make an emergency, chutes-out landing in Texas. A simple fix prevented the problem from recurring, but not before my dad became a student of entomology.)
This morning comes news of the first test flight since the grounding, but there are no details of the “new battery system” that has been fitted into this plane. It’s almost as though Boeing has put a news embargo on details of what its engineers are doing to fix this mess. Is the new battery system also lithium-ion, or have they gone back to some lower tech, lower power battery system?
The ordeal of the Dreamliner airplane ought to be some questions about the scalability of lithium-ion batteries. It’s one thing to solve the heat and fire problems of the small ones we use in laptops, smart phones, and tablets, but as the Dreamliner’s woes possibility suggest, scaling up lithium-ion batteries may be problematic. Jet airplanes receive frequent maintenance checks. Do we think automobile owners will do the same if we develop all-electric cars with large lithium-ion batteries?
Maybe we’ll figure this out, and look back on the nightmare of the Dreamliner as a milestone in the development of larger battery technology. (Boeing’s stock value is holding up remarkably well through this ordeal.) But I’m skeptical. The basic problem with all battery technology boils down to simple physics: what we’re trying to do is get a solid-state device to deliver the same concentrated and rapid energy delivery we currently get from hydrocarbon fuels. Gasoline is, of course, explosive under certain conditions, as is natural gas. When you pack in a lot of energy into a solid-state device designed for rapid energy release, we often call it by a different name: a bomb.