Elon Musk may be right about his simple solution for Boeing—loosen up the battery

“Hands up if you know how to fix a 787!”
“Hands up if you know how to fix a 787!”
Image: AP Photo/Paul Sakuma
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

About two weeks ago, spaceship-and-electric car-maker Elon Musk (pictured above) got in touch with Boeing, whose 787 Dreamliners are grounded because of smoke and fire problems with their powerful lithium-iron batteries. His team had figured out how to tightly pack such batteries into both space-going and earthly vehicles. He was happy to pass along lessons learned. Boeing replied that the situation is “under control,” Musk said.

Now, Boeing appears to have reconsidered. Though it is not saying so explicitly, it seems to be looking at Musk’s main advice—reducing the chance of fire hazard by increasing the space (paywall) between the lithium-ion cells in the battery pack, according to the Wall Street Journal.

A Musk fan site is crowing about Boeing’s possible about-face.

The reporting on Musk gets one thing wrong—his Tesla automobiles do not use the lithium-cobalt-oxide chemistry that is in the Dreamliner batteries. They rely on Panasonic nickel-cobalt-aluminum lithium-ion batteries, which may be less volatile.

In the end, that may not be a crucial difference, one battery scientist told me—“I would be the first to say that there are safer battery chemistries available than [Boeing’s lithium-cobalt-oxide],” he said, “but if you know what you’re dealing with, you can make a system safe.”

Yet it may be at least partly about perception. Why choose the most volatile of all the standard lithium-ion configurations when, in a crisis, that could turn into a public relations nightmare?

Generally speaking, battery scientists will speak only not-for-attribution on the 787 issue. In some cases this is because they have been hired by Boeing as consultants to figure out what went wrong. The one quoted above doesn’t want to be identified.

But he also thinks that, contrary to what some reports have suggested, Boeing has made progress in figuring out the root cause of the problem with the Dreamliners. “The process of elimination does rule out many possible root causes and gets you closer to the answer,” the scientist said. “I’m sure they have a short list that’s getting shorter by the day.”