The 787 is the first airliner to make extensive use of lithium-ion batteries to help power its energy-hungry electrical systems. The batteries charge faster and can be better molded to space-saving shapes compared with other airplane batteries.
"Unfortunately, what Boeing did to save weight is use the same batteries that are in the electric cars, and they are running into the same problems with the 787 as the problems that have shown up in electric cars," said Paul Czysz, professor emeritus of aeronautical engineering at St. Louis University.
The lithium-ion batteries in several Chevrolet Volts used for crash-testing caught fire in 2011. General Motors engineers eventually figured out that the fires were the result of a battery coolant leak that caused electrical shorts after side-impact crash tests. GM retrofitted the car with more steel to protect the battery. No fires were ever reported on real-world roads.
Jim McNerney, Boeing's chairman, president and CEO, said the company is working with the FAA to resolve the situation as quickly as possible.
"We are confident the 787 is safe and we stand behind its overall integrity," he said in a statement. "We will be taking every necessary step in the coming days to assure our customers and the traveling public of the 787's safety and to return the airplanes to service."
Mike Sinnett, chief engineer on the 787, said last week that the plane's batteries have operated through a combined 1.3 million hours and never had an internal fault. He said they were built with multiple protections to ensure that failures "don't put the airplane at risk."
The lithium-ion design was chosen because it's the only type of battery that can take a large charge in a short amount of time.
Neither GS Yuasa Corp., the Japanese company that supplies the batteries for the 787, nor Thales, which makes the battery charging system, would comment on the recent troubles.
Boeing and its customers will need to move quickly to resolve the problem. The aircraft maker has booked orders for more than 800 of the planes from airlines around the world attracted by its increased fuel efficiency.
The FAA order had airlines, flight crews and passengers scrambling to figure out what to do next. Stanislaw Radzio, the captain of a LOT Polish Airlines 787 that landed at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago late Wednesday, told The Associated Press he wasn't sure when the plane would be heading back to Poland.
"We're grounded like everyone else," he said. "We are very unhappy with the situation."
He said he was told of the FAA decision during the flight from Warsaw. A captain and flight instructor at the Polish airline since 1999, Radzio said the 787 is the nicest plane he's ever flown.
Freed reported from Minneapolis. Associated Press writers Herb McCann in Chicago, Elaine Kurtenbach and Yuri Kageyama in Tokyo, Kelvin Chan in Hong Kong and Scott Mayerowitz in New York contributed to this report.
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