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Li-ion batteries’ aerospace options eyed

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Lithium ion (Li-ion) batteries have been a commercial success ever since their introduction in Japan in 1991. They found applications first in small-scale specialist devices, then in consumer electronics, powering mobile phones and laptop computers, and more recently as larger power packs for electric and hybrid vehicles – and now aircraft.

Li-ion has built a multibillion dollar world market on the basis of several clear advantages over other rechargeable technologies, such as nickel cadmium and nickel metal hydride for small cells and lead acid for larger batteries.

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Most important is “energy density”. Li-ion can store considerably more electric charge in a smaller and lighter package than its competitors. It can release electricity more quickly, if a device needs a quick surge of power, and can go through more cycles of charging and discharging without long-term deterioration.

Another valuable attribute of Li-ion is its flexibility. Li-ion batteries can be built in almost any size and shape to fit particular applications.

The main drawback, as the Dreamliner incidents illustrate, is risk of overheating. The batteries can catch fire under exceptional conditions, such as over-charging, and once alight they may burn uncontrollably as the high temperatures generate inflammable chemicals from the cells.

The fire risk has been recognised – and publicised – for several years. Stories about burning laptop and notebook computers have plagued several manufacturers, including Sony and Hewlett-Packard, with consumer recalls to replace Li-ion batteries with safer models.

Battery safety was also A concern when General Motors chose Li-ion for its Chevy Volt hybrid electric car. GM carried out a voluntary recall of the Volt last year to make various changes, including strengthening the battery structure and adding a sensor to monitor coolant levels, after the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration investigated fires in battery packs following crash tests.

But the advantages of Li-ion over other batteries are so great that analysts expect the market to continue growing rapidly. The latest report this week from Frost and Sullivan forecast that European sales of Li-ion for non-consumer industrial applications, including aerospace and defence, would more than double over the next five years to $1.64bn in 2017.
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