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Battery brouhaha gives pause to the cause

All-electric Tesla Model S.


The entire fleet of the "world's most advanced airliner," the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, remains grounded indefinitely. The problem is not the carbon fibre wings or the new engines, but fires in the vicinity of the aircrafts' lithium-ion batteries.

Wait now, don't most of the plug-in electric cars on the road today have lithium-ion batteries? Is the Boeing experience giving lith-ion batteries a bad name and scaring away potential electric car customers?

That could be what billionaire Elon Musk was thinking when he announced to the world through that battery packs used by Boeing are "inherently unsafe." Musk, of course, is the founder and president of Tesla Motors, the California-based electric car company, as well as SpaceX, which competes for military business against Boeing.

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Musk is fast and loose in expressing opinions; however, he has certainly earned credibility for achievements many had thought impossible. The all-electric Tesla S has received rave reviews and a good reliability record and the SpaceX Falcon 9 launch vehicle has successfully supplied the International Space Station. Not bad for a Queen's University dropout.

Before we get any farther into this, let's acknowledge that there are a wide variety of lithium-ion batteries, which all rely on different chemistries with varying characteristics. The cells used in the Boeing 787 are not the same as those used in plug-in cars.

That's a key point that the excitable Musk makes.

Both Boeing and Tesla use lithium cobalt oxide, but Boeing puts together a battery made up of eight fairly large cells, each about the size of a paperback book. Tesla, on the other hand, puts together thousands of small cells, each about the size of a AA flashlight battery. They are all connected separately to prevent fire in a single cell from spreading to the surrounding ones.

"Unfortunately, the pack architecture supplied to Boeing is inherently unsafe," wrote Musk in his e-mail to flightglobal. "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."

That's a dire warning and Musk's offer to assist Boeing in its investigation was naturally declined; however, Musk succeeded in getting the spotlight to defend his approach to lith-ion. Boeing's chief engineer for the 787, Mike Sinnett, said Boeing designed the pack to cope with single cell failures and runaway thermal events as well.

It's possible the problem with the batteries in the Dreamliner is due to faulty charging and not the cells at all. Even a lead acid battery can explode if overcharged.

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While the investigation goes on, Musk doesn't want Boeing's problems to make people afraid of the lith-ion in motor cars and he can command a platform for his views.

There are many arguments in favour of electric cars, yet battery technology always rears up to be the biggest obstacle. Too risky. Too heavy. Too expensive. Too long to charge. Too little range.

When this gets sorted out, then electric cars and even the "world's most advanced airliner" will have a much brighter future.

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