Does Tesla's Elon Musk Have a Solution to Boeing's Dreamliner Fires?


Boeing's Dreamliner nightmare continues. On Friday, an empty Dreamliner caught fire on the runway at Heathrow Airport, while another Florida-bound Dreamliner had to return to Manchester following a "technical issue."

These issues are just the latest problems causing turbulence for the Dreamliner, following its return to flight status after a fix to its lithium-ion battery. Though early reports indicate the battery wasn't at fault, the investigation is still under way. And if these latest problems do turn out to be battery-related, Boeing may want to give TeslaMotors' Elon Musk a call. Here's why.

By National Transportation Safety Board, via Wikimedia Commons.

Is the battery safe, or is was it just a "quick fix"?
Even though the Dreamliner was cleared for flight status earlier this year, Boeing never determined what caused the problem with its battery in the first place. Further, the Dreamliner that caught fire at Heathrow after being parked for more than eight hours seems similar to what happened with the parked Dreamliner that caught fire in Boston in January. This, in turn, has caused renewed fear over the safety of Boeing's li-ion battery, and it's caused Boeing's share price to plummet.

Further fueling battery safety concerns are people such as Michel Armand, professor of chemistry at the University of Picardie and a research director at the French government's Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, and Elton Cairns, a Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory professor and battery technology expert. Earlier this year, Cairns stated: "I'm shocked that Boeing was willing to stake its reputation on these batteries. Even with the modifications, the individual cells of the battery are crammed too closely together and feature an internal chemistry that's far too volatile."

Michel Armand, meanwhile, told Barron's: "Using these batteries in planes makes no sense, with all the lives potentially at stake. These batteries are unpredictable and prone to thermal runaway and fires."

Elon to the rescue?
Some of the fixes Boeing made to its battery include a new titanium venting system, better insulation between the eight cells in the battery, gentler charging to minimize stress, and a steel box designed to contain the fire if the batteries ignite.

However, in February, Tesla's Elon Musk told Bloomberg that one of the major issues with Boeing's battery was its large cell size:

The battery cells are very big and they're quite close together and there's not enough insulation between the cells. So if one cell goes into thermal runaway and catches on fire, it's going to cascade into the other cells. The long term solution for having a battery pack that's reliable and safe and lasts a long time is to reduce the size of the cells, and have more cells that are smaller and have bigger gaps and better thermal insulation between the cells.

In other words, though Boeing added more insulation, along with other fixes, that may not be enough to guarantee the safety of the battery. Musk believes that for Boeing's battery to be reliable in the long term, the company needs to redo its battery design with more, smaller cells. Considering Musk's reputation as a li-ion pioneer and battery expert, Boeing may want to heed his warning.

Turbulence ahead?
Investigations into the Dreamliner's issues are still ongoing, and they may not be related to the battery at all. However, that doesn't mean the fixes Boeing made to the battery are enough to keep it flying. With Musk and other battery experts continuing to challenge the safety of Boeing's battery, and considering everything Boeing's gone through with its Dreamliner -- including the impact on its stock price -- it might be time to give Musk a call.

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