News Column

NTSB to Test 787's Charger System at Securaplane

Jan. 22, 2013

Carli Brosseau

Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board will visit Tucson, Ariz., today as part of their inquiry into the safety of Boeing's flagship 787 Dreamliner.

Oro Valley-based Securaplane manufactures the charger used with the aircraft's lithium-ion batteries, which have come under intense scrutiny after a Japan Airlines 787 caught fire at Boston Logan International Airport Jan. 7.

Governments grounded the Dreamliner and Boeing halted deliveries after a problem with a lithium-ion battery on a second 787 that forced an emergency landing in western Japan about a week later.

The Federal Aviation Administration has also launched a separate review of the 787 with an emphasis on the aircraft's advanced electrical systems, covering their design, manufacture and assembly.

So far, safety investigators have ruled out excess voltage as the cause of the battery fire, but they plan to look into other aspects of the charging process, starting with a visit to the Tucson manufacturing site.

"Examination of the flight recorder data from the JAL B-787 airplane indicate that the APU (auxiliary power unit) battery did not exceed its designed voltage of 32 volts," the agency said in a news release Sunday.

In Tucson, investigators plan to test and examine the charger systems. They will later investigate the auxiliary power unit controller, which is manufactured by UTC Aerospace Systems in Phoenix, NTSB spokesman Peter Knudson said.

The maker of the Dreamliner's batteries is Japan-based GS Yuasa, which is also under scrutiny.

The 787 is Boeing's newest jet, and it represents the company's effort to revolutionize aviation by slashing aircraft weight to alleviate airlines' fuel costs. Energy-dense lithium-ion batteries are a key part of meeting the goal of dropping fuel bills by 20 percent, but they have been plagued by safety issues.

The FAA has been testing the safety of lithium-ion batteries for years. As recently as 2010, a study of the flammability of lithium-ion and lithium-ion polymer battery cells designed for aircraft power use found that they "can react violently when exposed to an external fire."

"Under test conditions, when the battery cells failed, flammable electrolyte was released and ignited, which further fueled the existing fire," the study said.

Boeing was allowed to use lithium ion batteries under special conditions from the FAA.

The potential flammability of the batteries has been on full display here in Tucson.

Securaplane's manufacturing facility burned in a three-alarm fire in 2006, but the cause was an improper test setup rather than dangerous technology, Boeing spokesman Marc Birtel said.

After the fire, a former Securaplane employee named Michael Leon sued the company, alleging that he was fired for raising security concerns about the charger, among other things, but his suit was later dismissed.

Securaplane, founded in Tucson in 1986, is now owned by Meggitt, a London-based aerospace and defense company with $2.2 billion in annual sales, according to a company presentation released this month.

The company makes six types of lithium-ion battery systems, including some that are used as a primary source of power on aircraft, according to its website.

A Securaplane representative did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Source: (c)2013 The Arizona Daily Star (Tucson, Ariz.) Distributed by MCT Information Services

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