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Solved: The Mystery of the 787’s Smoking Batteries

Although it seems like a decade ago, only about a year has passed since fires and fuel leaks propelled Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner into the headlines and eventually led to the plane’s grounding by the FAA, in January 2013.

Three months later, in April of 2013, when the FAA gave the go-ahead to resume scheduled 787 flights, it was on the basis of new safety features developed for the 787’s lithium-ion batteries and their venting system. So it was pretty clear that the battery had been the culprit. But what exactly happened to the batteries, and who was to blame for it, were never made public.

In a report released this week, the National Transportation Safety Board weighed in with the most comprehensive analysis yet of the 787’s battery system issues, and apportioned blame for the problems among Boeing, the FAA, and GS Yuasa, the battery manufacturer.

According to an NTSB news release, “Shortcomings in design and certification ultimately led to the fire in a lithium-ion battery installed on a Boeing 787 jetliner that had just completed an intercontinental flight to Boston.”

In particular, Boeing and the FAA failed to adequately consider the possibility of “cell-to-cell thermal runaway,” the process that is now assumed to have caused the batteries’ overheating.

As for the manufacturer, the NTSB found that GS Yuasa’s production process was capable of introducing imperfections in the batteries that its quality-control checks weren’t designed to detect and that could and did result in overheating the batteries.

Although the smoking batteries no doubt made for some scary moments for 787 passengers and crew, the battery technology was relatively new and untested in a commercial aircraft. At the time, in its own defense, Boeing dismissed the battery issues as “teething problems.” Now that the hysteria has abated, that seems to be about right.

In the event, the FAA grounded the planes before anyone was injured. The problems were identified, and solutions found. The 787 Dreamliners are back in the sky, and have been positively reviewed by most flyers.

The system failed. But it also worked.

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