The Boeing 787 "Dreamliner" has been grounded for a month after a series of serious battery-related incidents. Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk believes he has the technical know-how to solve the Dreamliner's dilemma. (Photo: Creative Commons)
A series of incidents have caused Boeing to ground its entire fleet of Boeing 787 "Dreamliner" passenger jets since January 17. Preliminary investigations suggest that the 787 suffers a flaw originating from the aircraft's high-tech lithium ion batteries.
Currently, the US National Transportation Safety Board continues to conduct its investigation on all 787 Dreamliners flown by Japan Airlines and All Nippon Airways. While Japanese inspectors already cleared battery supplier GS Yuasa of any defects before the units leaves the factory for Boeing assembly, both Japanese and U.S. expert investigators continue to run a number of tests to understand what is causing the batteries to fail.
One such test involved an undamaged 787 battery studied within a U.S. Navy lab. Scientists hope that controlled experiments could reveal signs of degradation, premature wear, or a loss of performance.
According to the Boeing 787 chief project engineer Mike Sinnett, the Dreamliner's battery system was meticulously designed as a starter for an auxiliary power unit and emergency power back-up in commercial aircraft.
"I design a cell to not fail and then assume it will and the ask the next 'what-if' questions," Sinnett said. "And then I design the batteries that if there is a failure of one cell it won't propagate to another. And then I assume that I am wrong and that it will propagate to another and then I design the enclosure and the redundancy of the equipment to assume that all the cells are involved and the airplane needs to be able to play through that."
Despite the contingencies, the batteries still failed. Now, Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla Motors and SpaceX, has boldly claimed via Twitter that he has what it takes to assist Boeing in solving the battery meltdown problem. In fact, Musk announced that he has already begun speaking with Mike Sennett. Details of their conversations were not shared. From a tweet Elon Musk wrote on January 26: "Desire to help Boeing is real & am corresponding with 787 chief engineer."
"We fly high-capacity lithium-ion battery packs in our rockets and spacecraft, which are subject to much higher loads than commercial aircraft and have to function all the way from sea level air pressure to vacuum," said Musk in an email to Reuters. "We have never had a fire in any production battery pack at either Tesla or SpaceX."
So what does Musk think about Boeing's flawed system?
"Unfortunately, the pack architecture supplied to Boeing is inherently unsafe," Musk wrote. "Large cells without enough space between them to isolate against the cell-to-cell thermal domino effect means it is simply a matter of time before there are more incidents of this nature.
"They (Boeing) believe they have this under control, although I think there is a fundamental safety issue with the architecture of a pack with large cells."
Time will tell whether Elon Musk's input will expedite the situation, but given that Musk is armed with a degree in physics and experience from two cutting edge companies, we can't wait to see how the alliance unfolds.