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Lithium Batteries Can Be Safe for Planes, Experts Say

Lithium-ion batteries like the ones that overheated on two Boeing Co. (BA) 787 Dreamliners can be made safe enough for even the most critical transportation uses, according to three experts who will speak at a forum today.

“The batteries are continuing to get better and safer,” Dan Doughty, of Battery Safety Consulting Inc. in Albuquerque, New Mexico, said in an interview. “As we learn and understand the failure modes, that will continue.”

The question is whether safeguards, such as encasing them in steel and building in protective circuitry, are too costly, Vince Visco, senior vice president of strategy and business development at Quallion LLC, said in an interview. Los Angeles- based Quallion makes batteries for use in space and medical devices. He and Doughty are set to speak today at a U.S. National Transportation Safety Board forum in Washington.

Boeing is proposing protections like those Visco described in a redesigned battery, including titanium vents to draw smoke and fumes outside if a fire starts, as a way to get its grounded planes airborne. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration hasn’t said when it will act on Boeing’s proposed fix.

The safety board, as part of an investigation into a 787 battery fire Jan. 7 in Boston, is holding today’s forum to hear from academic and industry officials on how to make cells safer. It will hold a separate hearing April 23-24 to examine the Dreamliner’s battery design and how it was certified by the FAA.
Grounded Plane

The plane, Boeing’s newest airliner, has been grounded since Jan. 16 following two incidents in which onboard lithium battery packs smoldered.

Rechargeable lithium cells now power devices ranging from Apple Inc. (AAPL)’s iPad to power tools and are increasingly being used in transportation equipment. While battery fires are rare, they have been linked to aviation accidents and blazes in plug-in electric cars.

When it catches fire, lithium burns violently, spewing flammable gas and molten metal. However, batteries much larger than those on the 787 have proven themselves in recent years in uses that include hybrid buses and in power grids, Yet-Ming Chiang, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor who also will speak at today’s forum, said in an interview.

“Any time you have a highly concentrated source of energy, you need to understand it and treat it with respect,” Chiang said. “But that’s true of any form of fuel that you use, whether it’s gasoline, jet fuel or batteries.”
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