After a lithium-ion battery caused a fire in a Boeing 787 Dreamliner last week, the fleet of planes has been grounded by federal investigators looking into the cause.
The fleet is using lithium-ion batteries, as they pack a lot of energy and can be charged quickly and frequently, without loss of power. The use of the lithium-ion batteries was approved by federal regulators in 2007, but the agency required the company to take a series of steps, including keeping pressure from building in the battery and toxic gases from escaping.
The batteries in the planes never put passengers in danger, but there was the chance that the batteries would leak flammable fluid and smoke on flights.
Lithium-ion batteries have been fraught with problems in the past, and have caught fire in cell phones, computers and electric cars. The batteries also destroyed a small Navy submarine.
In 2006, Lenovo, IBM, Dell and Apple all recalled laptops that used lithium-ion batteries. General Motors announced last year changes to its electric car, Chevrolet Volt, after lithium-ion batteries caught fire days after a crash test.
Investigators are looking into a variety of causes, such as the basic design of the battery, the units that charge them or a manufacturing defect.
Boeing officials said they understood the potential dangers of the battery, and built a system with multiple layers of protection. In case any fumes or flames escaped, the pressurized air system would keep the smoke out of the cabin and vent it outside the plane.
However, the new batteries pave the way for airplanes to be more fuel efficient. The planes will be grounded until the problem is resolved.
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Source: The New York Times "Praised but Fire-Prone, Battery Fails Test in 787," Jan. 18, 2013.