On Monday, the National Transportation Safety Board released the result of its near two year investigation into the battery fire event on a Japan Airlines 787 at Boston's Logan Airport in January 2013. The NTSB follows by three months a similarly exhaustive probe by the JTSB, its Japanese counterpart, into another Dreamliner battery problem nine days later that same year on a All Nippon Airways flight.
One would think that GS-Yuasa, the 97-year old Kyoto-based company hired by Boeing had enough experience to safely churn out the batteries that would provide start-up and emergency power to the 787. GS-Yuasa was already producing lithium ion for satellites and electric vehicles. But during its tour of the company, the NTSB investigators found manufacturing processes that increased the possibility of defects - including opportunities for foreign objects to be embedded inside the cells - and inspection procedures that made their discovery unlikely.
"Without such devices, additional causes of joint degradation," could be many, the NTSB reports in a footnote.
When the men and women who would one day fly the 787 Dreamliner, worried in 2007 about the inherent risk of fire if the lithium ion batteries were to suffer a thermal runaway, the pilots were given this assurance by the Federal Aviation Administration; There will be no fire. That's how convinced the FAA was by assurances from Boeing that it understood the complexities of lithium ion and had caged its hazards.
The dangerous nature of cobalt oxide lithium ion batteries was
certainly well-known in 2006 when Boeing made the decision to use the
powerful and fast-recharging source to provide start-up and emergency power on the
airliner. That was the year that laptop, cell phone and other electronic
devices powered by the same flavor of lithium ion were spontaneously
erupting into flames. Millions of batteries were recalled, in the
largest such event in history.
This explains the NTSB's statement in the final report, that
"Boeing failed to incorporate design requirements in the 787" batteries
that would "mitigate
the most severe effects of a cell internal short circuit."
From my initial reading of the Japanese and American examinations of the January 2013 battery events, two possibilities emerge. Either Boeing, Thales, GS-Yuasa and the FAA simply ignored the risks in their race to bring the revolutionary fuel-efficient airplane to market, or they vastly underestimated the challenge.
I'm told by someone in the know, Boeing and the FAA were guilty of nothing more than ignorance. Boeing relied on GS-YUASA and the FAA relied on Boeing.
"They did what they thought was right, but you don't know what you don't know," this source told me, adding, "and the FAA did the same."