Airbus examines lithium battery safety, fire suppression
Note: The NTSB Sunday said it still doesn’t know what caused the lithium ion battery to catch fire on the JAL Boeing 787.
Japan eased safety standards ahead of service, according to a news report.
Airbus officials are trying to keep a low profile during the focus on Boeing’s 787 lithium ion battery problems, but since the A350 XWB will also have this battery type, Airbus gets pulled into the story whether it wants to or not.
Airbus officials are concerned whatever the US Federal Aviation Administration decides is ultimately necessary for Boeing to fix the lithium ion problems and restore the 787 to service, it might have a knock-on effect to certifying the A350.
There are several issues: fire prevention; fire suppression; battery safety; risks and so on.
Although Airbus responded to some questions at its annual press conference, and has selectively talked about the Boeing situation since, it’s declined useful comment on some specific questions, notably about fire suppression.
As details emerged following the Japan Air Lines Boeing 787 fire, Boeing indicated that the airplane doesn’t have fire suppression around the lithium-ion batteries. Several news stories have been written about this, including this one we previously linked. This, of course, begs the question: will the Airbus A350 have fire suppression around its lithium-ion batteries, which are of a different design than those in the 787? We asked Airbus and got this answer:
“Airbus will carefully study any recommendations that come out of the 787 investigation and evaluate whether they would apply to the A350.”
Well, that was certainly helpful.
As it turns out, Airbus has talked about lithium ion batteries before. Airbus in March 2012 made a presentation on lithium-ion batteries at a Flight Safety Conference in Berlin. Airbus on Lithium-Ion Battery Safety
There are a couple of key slides in the presentation that deserve calling out here. The first set deal with risks and causes:
And the types of lithium batteries:
Note on the following slide, fire suppression is discussed in the lower right hand corner.
And this one on fire suppression:
And another on the challenges of fighting thermal runaway:
The following slide makes reference to Airbus’ design for the lithium-ion batteries allows for venting within the battery, a key point the MIT professor makes with respect to the 787 (see the link at the end of this post).
We asked Airbus for a walk-through of these slides; it declined. We asked Airbus about its fire suppression design for the batteries. It declined comment.
Given Boeing’s previous comments about the inability to suppress a thermal runaway, and the Airbus slides above, it is reasonable to conclude Airbus does not have a fire suppression system in the A350, either. Instead, it made the decision to stay with traditional hydraulic and pneumatic architecture for many of the systems, which results in a requirement for about one-third of the electrical power needed on the 787 and less than that of the A330.
Airbus also said it has four ion batteries rather than two on the 787, thus spreading the load. The slides above also suggest Airbus is venting the batteries themselves, which according to MIT, Boeing is not. Boeing declined comment.
The New York Times has this article that talks about the cozy relationship between Boeing and Japan, relating it to the selection of a Japanese company to supply the batteries for the 787.
Richard Aboulafia thinks the 787′s grounding could be 6-9 months, echoing sentiment expressed by Ernie Arvai at AirInsight. As we reported Sunday, an official with MIT thinks the airplane could be grounded for a year if the lithium-ion batteries have to be replaced and the supporting systems redesigned. This article refers to venting the battery, at Airbus infers in its slide show.