If uncontained, a battery fire could melt 787 fuselage, tests suggest

WASHINGTON — A fire that broke out last week in a Boeing 787 Dreamliner could have been hot enough to melt the carbon-fiber reinforced plastic that makes up the plane’s shell, according to the results of tests the Federal Aviation Administration performed last year.

The fire broke out in a lithium battery housed near the tail section of a Japan Airlines plane at Boston’s Logan International Airport, prompting an investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board and a review by the FAA.

On Monday, the NTSB released photos of the fire-damaged battery and the metal box that contained it. An NTSB spokesman would not say Tuesday whether the box kept the fire from damaging anything but the battery, and a Boeing spokeswoman could not immediately say what material was used for the box.

Paul Jonas, director of the Environmental Test Lab at the National Institute for Aviation Research in Wichita, Kan., said the box may have contained the fire.

“From the photo provided, the box looks like it did the job fairly well,” said Jonas, whose lab does testing for the FAA. “The fact that they had a box would indicate that they designed for this condition.”

In the FAA tests, which the agency performed at its site in Atlantic City, N.J., a year after it certified the Dreamliner, the temperature of the battery fires reached as high as 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. The plane’s polymer skin melts at 649 degrees, according to its manufacturer, Victrex Energy of West Conshohocken, Pa.

John Goglia, a former member of the NTSB who led public hearings after ValuJet Flight 592 crashed into the Florida Everglades in 1996, killing all 105 passengers and crew members, said problems with lithium batteries catching fire in laptops, cellphones and electric cars were well documented and “should have raised a flag with the FAA.”

“We’ve had a long-running issue with lithium batteries,” he said. “They’re not allowed to be carried on passenger airplanes.”

Goglia said weight was the most likely reason Boeing went with the 63-pound lithium battery, which is lighter and more powerful than other types.

It also burns at high temperatures. In two lithium battery fire tests last year, temperatures peaked between 1,400 and 2,000 degrees, according to a report of the test results. Some of the battery cells exploded and landed more than 100 feet from the fire, and one of the fires burned for more than an hour.

A Boeing safety document from last year shows the location of the battery in a lower compartment near the plane’s tail section. The compartment, which is not protected by the plane’s fire-suppression system, contains key electrical systems. The battery, which powers the plane’s auxiliary power unit, is close to the plane’s fuselage.

Fifty Dreamliners are in service worldwide, and 800 more are on order. Boeing planned this year to produce 10 of the aircraft a month at its two final assembly sites in North Charleston, S.C., and Everett. About 50 percent of the plane is made of a composite material similar to a fiberglass boat. It replaces aluminum, making the plane lighter and more fuel efficient.

In a separate test last year, the FAA exposed a section of the composite material to fire, and photos in the report show a result that looks like Swiss cheese.

Jonas said that 400 degrees is enough to degrade the material. A fire as hot as those in the FAA tests would burn it away.

“All you’re going to be left with is graphite fibers,” he said. “If you hold the flame on the composite long enough, it will burn out and just leave the carbon.”

More in Herald Business Journal

Tulalips break ground on new Quil Ceda Creek Casino Hotel

A 150-room hotel was added to what is now a $140 million complex expected to open in spring 2019.

For modern women, 98-year-old rejection letters still sting

In a stark new video, female Boeing engineers break the silence about past inopportunity.

Angel of the Winds pays $3.4M for Everett arena naming rights

The casino replaces Xfinity as the lead sponsor for the publicly owned downtown Everett events center.

Teddy, an English bulldog, models Zentek Clothing’s heat regulating dog jacket. (Ian Terry / The Herald)
Everett clothing company keeps your dog cool and stylish

Zentek uses space-age fabrics to moderate the temperature of pets and now humans.

Providence Hospital in Everett at sunset Monday night. Officials Providence St. Joseph Health Ascension Health reportedly are discussing a merger that would create a chain of hospitals, including Providence Regional Medical Center Everett, plus clinics and medical care centers in 26 states spanning both coasts. (Kevin Clark / The Daily Herald)
Merger would make Providence part of health care behemoth

Providence St. Joseph Health and Ascension Health are said to be talking. Swedish would also be affected.

Bombardier promotes its C Series airliner as American made

It says more than half its all-new jet is made in US factories with final assembly near Montreal.

Everett engineers learn lessons from Mexico City catastrophe

Structural scientists went to help after the September earthquake there and studied the damage.

Airports want to nearly double passengers’ user fees

Delta says airports will rake in $3.6 billion in passenger facility charge taxes this year.

UPS delays mount as online shopping hobbles courier’s network

FedEx completed 97.1 percent of its ground deliveries on time in the same period.

Most Read