Airbus A350 to avoid Boeing 787-style lithium-ion batteries and revert to tried and tested nickel-cadmium
Europe’s Airbus says it will drop lithium-ion batteries and switch back to traditional nickel-cadmium ones on its A350 passenger jet as investigators probe Boeing Dreamliner 787 safety incidents. The A350 is intended as a rival to the Dreamliner. The US National Transportation Safety Board still does not know the cause of the fires on the 787s. There is concern that short circuiting in one cell of the battery spread to other cells, which was not meant to happen. Airbus said it did not expect any further delays to the launch of the A350. The maiden flight is due to take place later this year, with the first passenger flight expected in the second half of 2014. Nickel cadmium batteries are heavier, but only minimally – than the lithium-ion batteries, only about the same on the A350 to one adult male passenger out of between 270 and 350 passengers.
Airbus A350 to avoid Boeing 787-style lithium-ion batteries
Airbus says it will not use lithium-ion batteries in its forthcoming A350 plane because of problems that have grounded rival Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner.
The European planemaker said it would use traditional nickel-cadmium batteries instead, as already used in the A380 and other models.
Investigations are continuing after battery problems came to light on 787s operated by Japan’s top two airlines.
Airbus said they remained “unexplained to the best of our knowledge”.
The firm said it did not expect any further delays to the launch of the A350. The maiden flight is due to take place later this year, with the first passenger flight expected in the second half of 2014.
In a statement, Airbus said it was “confident” that the lithium-ion battery that it had been developing with French battery-maker Saft was “robust and safe”.
It added that A350 test flights would continue with the lithium batteries.
“However, to date, the root causes of the two recent industry Li-ion main batteries incidents remain unexplained to the best of our knowledge,” Airbus said.
“In this context, and with a view to ensuring the highest level of programme certainty, Airbus has decided to activate its Plan B and therefore to revert back to the proven and mastered nickel-cadmium main batteries for its A350 XWB programme at entry into service (EIS).
“Airbus considers this to be the most appropriate way forward in the interest of programme execution and A350 XWB reliability.”
The A350 is intended as a rival to the Dreamliner, which was grounded last month after a lithium-ion battery on a Japan Airlines plane caught fire, while an All Nippon Airways flight was forced to make an emergency landing because of a battery malfunction.
These planes use lithium-ion batteries because they are relatively powerful compared to their size and weight. They are used for significant functions such as providing the starting and emergency power supply on the A350 aircraft.
Lithium batteries are also commonly used in other planes, but these are much smaller batteries, running much more minor things such as a small set of lights.
Shares in battery-maker Saft fell after the announcement. When it agreed the Airbus contract in 2008, it said it expected it to be worth 200m euros ($267m; £172m) over 25 years.
Airbus considering using conventional nickel cadmium batteries on the A350, not lithium
Europe’s Airbus is considering whether to drop lithium-ion batteries and switch back to traditional nickel-cadmium ones on its A350 passenger jet as investigators probe Boeing Dreamliner 787 safety incidents. There is consideration of whether the powerful but delicate backup energy systems are technically “mature”, or predictable. Locating the reason for the battery fires is not proving easy, and some believe the technology is not yet mature enough for safe use. The US National Transportation Safety Board has said it does not yet know the cause. of the fire. There is concern that short circuiting in one cell of the battery spread to other cells, which was not meant to happen. The A350 would be the second large passenger jet to fly on lithium-ion batteries for backup electrical power after the Dreamliner. Last week Airbus said it had a plan B for its battery and time to respond to any rule changes, though nickel cadmium batteries are heavier, but only minimally – about the same on the A350 to one adult male passenger out of between 270 and 350 passengers.
Airbus studies dropping lithium-ion battery for A350: sources
Feb 8, 2013 (Reuters)
Europe’s Airbus is considering whether to drop lithium-ion batteries and switch back to traditional ones on its A350 passenger jet as investigators probe Boeing 787 safety incidents, several people familiar with the matter said.
The move comes amid a wider rethink in the aerospace industry on whether the powerful but delicate backup energy systems are technically “mature”, or predictable, they said.
Industry executives, insurers and safety officials told Reuters the technology’s predictability was being questioned at senior levels as investigators struggle to find the cause of incidents that led to the grounding of Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner.
“There is an increasing doubt over the technology,” said a person familiar with industry-wide discussions on the issue. “It may well be the future but for now it is a question of maturity. The information on the two incidents is not reassuring.”
The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, which is examining a fire on a 787 at Boston airport a month ago, said on Thursday it had identified where the fire broke out but not the cause. A similar investigation is under way in Japan.
A spokesman for EADS unit Airbus said it would study the outcome of the U.S. probe: “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. There are no conclusions by the NTSB yet and the investigation is still ongoing.” All options are open, he added.
France’s Saft, which makes both the new and old batteries for Airbus, did not respond to requests for comment. Last month it insisted lithium-ion was safe.
The A350 would be the second large passenger jet to fly on lithium-ion batteries for backup electrical power after the Dreamliner, which pioneered their use in passenger transport to support an increasing array of electrical systems.
Airbus said last week it had a plan B for its battery and time to respond to any rule changes.
However, industry sources said that following the NTSB’s latest comments, the odds are shortening that Airbus will switch to nickel-cadmium technology used on jets like the A380.
“It is a classic risk-management problem. If you don’t know the cause of something you can’t quantify the risk that it will happen again,” an international safety official told Reuters.
“In that case, you have little choice but to take a temporary step back and rely on something better understood.”
Experts say that if the 787 probe fails to provide clear answers soon, pressure may build for Airbus to pre-empt the findings and switch solutions to head off development risk.
Airbus plans an A350 maiden flight in mid-year, followed by a year of flight trials and certification, during which the distraction of re-engineering could increase the risk of delays.
The A350 is due to be delivered in the second half of 2014, around two years behind its original schedule.
Reverting to nickel-cadmium would mean sacrificing the lighter weight of lithium-ion, equivalent on the A350 to one adult male passenger out of between 270 and 350 passengers.
“The penalty in weight compared with the risks associated with ‘li-ion’ is minimal,” said Nick Cunningham, an aerospace analyst at Agency Partners in London.
Boeing declined to say whether it was looking at making the same switch to restore its fleet to service. “We’re simply focused on resolving the issue, working closely with regulatory and investigative authorities,” a spokesman said.
Boeing said the U.S. planemaker had selected lithium-ion batteries because they best met the performance and design objectives of the 787. “Nothing we learned during the design of the 787 or since has led us to change our fundamental assessment of the technology,” the company said.
Because of its highly electric design, replacing many hydraulic systems, the 787 consumes more power than the A350.
Plane and battery makers say lithium-ion is safe but recognize it is in the early stages of use in commercial flying.
Cunningham said Airbus and Boeing had learned from past development snags that it pays to tackle problems early rather than having to embark on costly refits that burn up cash.
Insurers too are taking a more cautious approach to lithium-ion batteries, warning underwriters to consider the risks more closely in a way that could mean higher prices for airlines.
Global Aerospace, the London-based pool that acts as Boeing’s lead insurer, has already said the planemaker has coverage for groundings and compensation.
The question is what it will cost others in the future to get the same kind of coverage, or any coverage for that matter where the volatile battery technology is involved.
A senior U.S. insurance executive, asked how the Boeing 787 incidents would affect the ability of others to be insured, said: “it’s just a question of price.”
At least two major insurers are communicating with staff about the science behind lithium-ion, the risks associated with its use and the caution they should take in writing policies.
Lithium-ion batteries have been on the insurance industry’s radar for quite some time. The industry’s biggest fear has been the costs when batteries are stored in bulk and one catches fire, leading to a conflagration that destroys inventories.
“The industry maybe never thought this was going to end up in an airliner,” the insurance executive said.
The Fire Protection Research Foundation gathered members in Baltimore in August 2011 to discuss lithium-ion safety risks, a meeting well attended by some of the largest U.S. property insurers.
Their conclusion, at the time, was that more study needed to be conducted on packaging design and the most effective fire-suppression technologies, some of the same issues now being considered by aviation regulators in their Boeing probe.
The meeting’s aviation workgroup specifically noted that one of the issues to consider was “fire in flight”, according to minutes of the proceedings seen by Reuters.
(Additional reporting by Deepa Seetharaman, Jonathan Gould; Editing by James Regan and Dale Hudson)
(“fire in flight”, according to minutes of the proceedings seen by Reuters.
(Additional reporting by Deepa Seetharaman, Jonathan Gould; Editing by James Regan and Dale Hudson)
- U.S. regulator raises prospect of longer delay for Boeing 787Thu, Feb 7 2013
- Boeing working on 787 battery changes for fire risk: WSJThu, Feb 7 2013
- Dreamliner probe results “weeks away,” NTSB chief saysWed, Feb 6 2013
- Boeing battery maker sees lower profits – not due to 787Tue, Feb 5 2013
U.S. regulator raises prospect of longer delay for Boeing 787
By Jim Wolf and Alwyn Scott
Feb 7, 2013 (Reuters)
(Reuters) – Regulators need to rethink how they approved the batteries on the Boeing Co 787, a top U.S. safety official said on Thursday, adding a new and potentially time-consuming wrinkle to the plane’s grounding.
National Transportation Safety Board head Deborah Hersman said regulators must review the “special conditions” used in approving lithium-ion battery technology on the 787 Dreamliners, after two battery related safety incidents in a matter of days.
The 50 Dreamliners in service were grounded worldwide on January 16, after a series of battery incidents, including a fire on a parked 787 in Boston and an in-flight problem on another plane in Japan. The groundings have cost airlines tens of millions of dollars, with no end in sight.
“There have now been two battery events resulting in smoke, less than two weeks apart, on two different aircraft,” Hersman said. “The assumptions used to certify the battery must be reconsidered,” she added.
Boeing investors took the news in stride, pushing shares higher on the day. Analysts said the market was focusing on the wrong issue: the short-term question of fixing the battery versus the longer-term prospect the whole battery system might need to be approved again.
If the battery needs to be re-certified, “you’re talking about changes to the 50 they’ve delivered, significant amount of engineering commitment on the 787-9. I see this as still having a significant amount of question marks,” said Ken Herbert, an analyst at Imperial Capital in San Francisco.
Boeing shares are 3 percent higher since the 787 was grounded on January 16, despite the headaches it has caused the planemaker and the demands for compensation.
Since finished 787s are piling up undelivered, and Boeing customers are already agitating for compensation, that could complicate Boeing’s assumption the grounding would not significantly affect it financially this year.
“The market is focusing on the battery short circuit, which implies a simple fix,” said Carter Leake, analyst at BB&T Capital Markets. “But they’re missing the much bigger issue, which is the questioning of the certification process. Hersman is basically saying we’re questioning the original certification altogether.”
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The NTSB’s Hersman mentioned nine so-called special conditions the FAA set in 2007 in approving Boeing’s use of the battery, and its plan to allow the battery to burn itself out if it caught fire, because the risk was considered extremely remote.
Boeing’s certification tests put the chances of smoke from a 787 battery at one in every 10 million flight hours.
“The 787 fleet has accumulated less than 100,000 flight hours yet there have now been two battery events resulting in smoke, less than two weeks apart, on two different aircraft,” Hersman said.
The special conditions and the design assumptions are part of a broad review that the FAA launched last month, before the second battery incident. Hersman said the NTSB was not yet making any further recommendations.
Hersman also said on Thursday that the NTSB has isolated the source of a January 7 battery fire in Boston to a single one of the battery’s eight cells, but still has not found the actual root cause of the fire.
The NTSB plans to issue an interim factual report in 30 days, though the decision on returning the plane to regular flight rests with the Federal Aviation Administration.
In a joint statement, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and FAA Administrator Michael Huerta reiterated that the FAA’s comprehensive review was ongoing.
“We must finish this work before reaching conclusions about what changes or improvements the FAA should make going forward. The leading experts in this field are working to understand what happened and how we can safely get these aircraft back into service,” they said.
In the meantime, analysts have expressed concerns about a build-up of inventory, soaking up several billion dollars of cash, as Boeing continues to produce the 787 without making deliveries.
“For Boeing, it is encouraging to see that there has been concrete progress in the investigation but the (NTSB’s) point that there is still a long road ahead ultimately appears more important,” said Nick Cunningham, aerospace analyst at UK-based Agency Partners, an independent research firm.
As Hersman was addressing the news conference in Washington DC, the first 787 flight since mid-January left Texas for Washington state, a so-called ferry flight with no commercial passengers and a minimum crew to see if any battery problems crop up.
According to flight tracking website FlightAware, it left Dallas at 9:25 a.m. CST (10.25 a.m. ET) for the nearly three-and-a-half hour flight to Everett, Washington. The website indicated that it landed at 10:49 a.m. PST (1.49 p.m. ET). A Reuters reporter at the airport said the plane had no visible issues.
Ultimately scheduled for delivery to China Southern Airlines, the aircraft has not yet been handed over to the customer.
The Federal Aviation Administration on Wednesday approved the flight, which differed from Boeing’s request to run a series of test flights. It placed a number of conditions on the one-off trip, mostly having to do with testing and monitoring the plane’s battery.
While the investigation continues, Boeing is pursuing multiple ways to mitigate and contain a fire, if one starts in the batteries, one source familiar with the probe told Reuters. Three or four varying approaches would be pursued to ensure the batteries did not breach their containment systems, even if they caught fire, said the source.
(Additional reporting by Tim Hepher in Paris, Mari Saito and Tim Kelly in Tokyo and Bill Rigby in Everett, Washington; Writing by Ben Berkowitz; editing by Edward Tobin, Gunna Dickson and Carol Bishopric)