Dreamliner and a Nightmare

Who wants to be an engineer?

Boeing 787 Dreamliners are still grounded around the globe in February 2013 after the lithium ion battery problems became very bad in January 2012. Boeing says currently that it expects the aircraft to be back in service in late March or April. Something similar, but on a smaller scale, has happened before with laptops bursting into flames because of their lithium ion batteries.

This is the sort of problem that an engineer can face when any of her creations takes to the sky or arrives in numbers in the big, bad world. It may an aircraft, a car or a washing machine. It is what sometimes comes after the creative struggle of the Design process. Of course she hopes that the problems are not too terrifyingly large.

Now here, though, we have dozens of planes grounded for months and each worth two hundred million dollars [according to the Boeing website]. Nonetheless, dealing with similar things on a smaller scale are part of his job description for any engineer.

What information that seems to have seeped into the public prints is that the Lithium Ion batteries have not been adequately cooled and have taken fire. This is not something that aeronautical engineers want to happen to their babies. The aircraft designers or their colleagues, the Power Electronics Engineers, will be looking to see if some fault external to the batteries was the cause or whether the batteries installation has been designed too close together or whether the cooling systems designed for them are not sufficient.

The Lad is not a battery design expert, but he knows that lithium ion batteries are more like little furnaces rather than the EVEREADY, zinc oxide dry-batteries of his boyhood ‘tin’ torch. We can discover that like a boxer, pound for pound, these batteries are six times better than the standard lead acid battery in a car. This feature is gold dust for plane design engineers. But as a consequence of this, the lithium components are bursting with energy and therefore can get very hot. This, together with the essential [but flammable] solvent, means that a battery if it is hard-driven is continually on the verge of losing control to a runaway reaction and getting either very hot or even bursting into flames.

If it is a battery cooling problem for a modern airliner the solution will not be simple. No one can just say let us move them apart from each other or away from other bits of kit so that then they won’t get so hot. An aircraft may look large roomy and smooth from the outside.

An early DreamLiner at Farnborough Air Show
An early DreamLiner at Farnborough Air Show


In truth, inside there is packed a 3D maze of structure, engines, fuel tanks and cargo…sorry, passengers. Below is a picture that gives an indication of the complexity of the structure even before all the rest of the kit is installed.

An early Production Engineering Test Rig
An early Production Engineering Test Rig


Agreed! It is not a very informative graphic but it is the only one that seems to be available. Remember, that the Dreamliner has much clever engineering to allow the use of vast amounts of non-metallic components in its structure. How they do this is a close Boeing secret and not one they are likely to share with anyone in public anytime soon.

Certainly, the plane will be crammed inside with frames and stringers between which the batteries will be shoe-horned into their position. What is to be done then in these jam-packed spaces? Currently, rumour has it that

“Boeing has proposed insulating the battery’s lithium-ion cells from one another to prevent fire spreading, encasing the battery in a fire-proof shell and installing sensors.
It also proposes a venting mechanism to remove fumes which led to the emergency landing.”

The view of The Lad is that this can only be seen as a ‘workaround’ rather than a definitive solution which should involve arranging for the batteries not to over-heat. We can only await events.

A final thought on those ‘events’ is that, if the experience of The Lad is anything to go by, major problems like this will be astonishingly more complicated than The Lad is able to deduce in this post. The points that he makes above will only be the beginning of the beginning.

Such problems will have a large team entirely devoted to solving them. Such a team will consist of dozens of engineers. There will be design and development engineers, metallurgists, electrical and electronic engineers. As a team, they will be working, certainly, seven days a week and probably 24hrs a day. That’s what engineers do: their best efforts sometimes produce a problem so then they have to race to solve it. All the while that they struggle, massive present and future costs result in cash haemorrhaging straight down the drain – to waste.

Note that, while Boeing may say all will be well by March or April, at least one major customer airline expecting to be without its planes till May. So – that the above Boeing team list does not include the groups of programme guys working at the airlines. They are struggling to arrange replacement flights for passenger already booked to fly in planes are no longer available. The costs of this group and plane hire will undoubtedly land on the Boeing doormat in due course.

It emphasises that the professional engineer must always work with not only the obvious factors of ‘materials’ and the ‘forces’ developed by the machines but also with essential factor of ‘finance’.

How about this thought though. Problems such as this Dreamliner may be exhilarating – provided no one thinks that you were to blame. If you are in charge of the team solving them, The Lad guesses, that it can be satisfying. So! If you are the person who says ‘Bring it on!’ then maybe you are a worthy successor to Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

Do you want to be an engineer?

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