Boeing's 787 Lithium-ion Batteries are Inherently Unsafe, Says Elon Musk
More Accidents Could Affect People's Perception of Lithium-ion TechnologyAs CEO of Tesla Motors, Elon Musk's life revolves around advanced battery technology. He has a lot of engineering input at Tesla and is intimately familiar with lithium-ion batteries, but as a businessman, he must also be very aware that even if Tesla does things right when it comes to safety, it's possible for others to screw up and give the technology a bad name.
This seems to be what he's telling Boeing. The giant airplane maker has been having trouble with the lithium-ion batteries in its new 787 lately, and in an open letter to Flight Global, Mr. Musk decided to add his 2 cents.
"Unfortunately, the pack architecture supplied to Boeing is inherently unsafe," writes Musk in an email to Flightglobal.
"Large cells without enough space between them to isolate against the cell-to-cell thermal domino effect means it is simply a matter of time before there are more incidents of this nature," he adds. [...]
"Moreover, when thermal runaway occurs with a big cell, a proportionately larger amount of energy is released and it is very difficult to prevent that energy from then heating up the neighboring cells and causing a domino effect that results in the entire pack catching fire," says Musk.
"They [Boeing] believe they have this under control, although I think there is a fundamental safety issue with the architecture of a pack with large cells," writes Musk in an email. "It is much harder to maintain an even temperature in a large cell, as the distance from the center of the cell to the edge is much greater, which increases the risk of thermal runaway. (source)
Musk isn't alone. MIT battery expert Donald Sadoway, which we wrote about because of his amazing work on grid-scale liquid metal batteries, said that he was in agreement with Musk's assessment of Boeing's battery design.
All of this is important not because the batteries of the 787 have much to do with the environment, but because it could be very bad if a bad design affected the population's trust of lithium-ion batteries. This could slow down the adoption of plug-in vehicles even if they are designed well and safely (in the same way that gasoline isn't exactly the safest substance around, but there are ways to design pretty safe gasoline-powered cars). Something to keep an eye on and educate the public about.