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Dreamliner Fires Scorch the Advanced Battery Industry

Brittany Gibson — January 30, 2013

Source: BoeingThe investigation surrounding the Boeing Dreamliner battery fires indicates that Boeing, and its ballyhooed but beleaguered new jet, will recover from this incident.  The causes of the fires appear to be isolated to the battery system and not endemic to the overall design of the plane.  But the fires could have very different consequences for the advanced battery industry.  At the core of the Dreamliner fires is a debate that engulfs all technological change – How to balance risk and innovation?

So far in 2013 it seems as though high-profile battery accidents are appearing nearly as frequently as new battery shipments are being made. From Hawaii to Japan, batteries on the grid or in vehicles continue to highlight the technical challenges associated with battery storage. This is bad news for an industry that is already struggling to garner demand for its expensive products.  Lithium ion batteries, which have taken something of a competitive lead in consumer products and electric transportation, are pushing into new applications every day as multiple industries move toward cleaner operations based on electricity rather than liquid fuels.  Early adopters, such as Boeing (the Dreamliner is the first passenger aircraft to have Li-ion batteries approved for on-board operation), always bear more significant risk than those that follow.

While Boeing’s reputation and that of the Dreamliner may emerge intact, the battery industry is left with fundamental issues to address.  For years the great debate in the industry has been about cost, but safety issues could prove a greater drag on the industry’s growth in the near term.  Each incident casts a longer shadow over the future of advanced battery technologies.

Advanced battery makers must publicly address these issues and forthrightly move safety to the center of the discussion.  The Dreamliner fires place the burden of proof squarely on battery makers.  Early adopters must be reassured that safety issues are resolved if they’re going to be persuaded to pursue these innovative technologies.

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