Airbus has new plan for batteries

1 February 2013
By Sofia Mitra-Thakur
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The vertical stabiliser of a Boeing 787 Dreamliner is pictured as an Airbus A380 takes off during the 49th Paris Air Show

The vertical stabiliser of a Boeing 787 Dreamliner is pictured as an Airbus A380 takes off during the 49th Paris Air Show

Airbus has studied alternatives to lithium-ion batteries for its next jet, the A350, and has time to adapt to any rule changes prompted by the problems that have grounded Boeing's 787 Dreamliner, its top executive said.

Airbus plans to use lithium-ion batteries on the A350, similar to the technology incorporated in Boeing's 787 airliners, and so far has stood by the modern power packs.

"We studied the integration of these batteries on the A350 very carefully," Airbus chief executive Fabrice Bregier said. "I am very relaxed about this."

The first US grounding of a new model of passenger jet in over 30 years has focused attention on the risks that lithium-ion batteries can overheat and ignite a fire that is harder to put out than most flames, because of the solvents involved.

Airbus warned about the risks of lithium-ion batteries at a closed meeting of airlines in March 2011, according to a presentation first reported by Reuters this week.

"We identified this fragility at the start of development and we think we resolved it about a year ago," Bregier said. "Nothing prevents us from going back to a classical plan that we have been studying in parallel."

He did not provide details, but some aerospace industry sources caution that a redesign of the batteries could require months of engineering work and tests to obtain certification.

"We have a robust design. If this design has to evolve, we have the time to do that," Bregier said. "If it has to change in a more drastic way because the authorities reach the conclusion that the technology is not mature, then we have all the time we need to do this on the A350 before first delivery in the second half of 2014."

The head of the company that makes A350 batteries, France's Saft, said he did not believe there would be a radical rethink by aviation regulators on the use of lithium-ion as a result of the 787's problems.

It is the first time Boeing or Airbus has used the technology in designing commercial passenger jets.

Lithium-ion batteries are a third lighter than their older nickel-cadmium counterparts and are also capable of supporting other electrical systems that make the plane lighter. They take up less space than the nickel cadmium batteries used on most jets.

Experts say the 787 relies more heavily than the A350 on electrical systems instead of traditional hydraulics to control brakes and other systems, and therefore needs more power back-up.

The head of the National Transportation Safety Board said after a press conference last week that the lack of a fire-fighting system in the 787's battery compartment, which also contains flight electronics, was one area being examined.

Airbus has declined to say whether the A350 would include battery fire extinguishers, but industry sources say burning materials would instead be expelled outside the plane and that the fire hazard is reduced by electronics also provided by Saft.

Saft declined to comment on the A350 battery design.

Boeing's 787 batteries are supplied by French defence electronics company Thales, which sub-contracts the lithium-ion cells to Japanese company GS Yuasa.

A year after intense global publicity surrounding wing cracks on its A380 superjumbos, Airbus is keen to avoid a public split with its commercial rival on safety issues. 

But after sending a public message of support to Boeing on the 787 this month, Bregier exhibited frustration at growing speculation over the saga's impact on the A350.

"I'm not going to give any lessons to Boeing. At the same time, I don't have to take any either, when I think we have done well and have a plan which allows me to have aircraft flying with batteries that don't catch fire," he said.

"Let's allow the US authorities to come up with their own recommendations and decisions."

Boeing chief executive Jim McNerney said this week the US planemaker was "narrowing down" the potential causes of the two battery incidents that led to the 787 grounding.

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