US regulator sees lessons from Boeing 787 battery woes

NEW YORK (REUTERS) - Regulators in the United States are discussing whether the batteries that burned on Boeing's 787 Dreamliner hold any lessons for other aircraft or vehicles.

Mr George Nield, associate administrator for commercial space transportation at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), said a dialogue is taking place about whether the overheating of two lithium-ion batteries on the 787 could have broader implications.

The discussion marks a shift for the agency. Two months after the Dreamliner was approved for service in 2011, a lithium-ion battery caught fire on a Cessna business jet, prompting the FAA to order that lithium-ion batteries be replaced with less hazardous cells on all of those jets within a week. But the agency concluded there were no broader lessons to be learned for the 787 or other aircraft.

Mr Nield, who noted that the International Space Station is among the platforms that use the batteries, said the discussion is different now. "There might not have been a lot (of dialogue) in the past, but I can assure you there will be going forward," he said.

Lightweight and power-packed, lithium-ion batteries are used to power electric cars, laptops, tablets, cell phones, satellites. They are even used on the Lockheed Martin F-35 fighter jet. The number of cells manufactured globally has leapt to 4.4 billion last year from 800 million in 2002.

However, safety remains an issue. The battery industry still does not have a foolproof way to predict or prevent internal short circuits in the cells, according to experts who spoke about the issue this week at the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) forum.

The NTSB is investigating what caused one of the 787 batteries to overheat and catch fire in January. A second battery smoldered and emitted smoke during a flight in Japan, prompting the pilots to make an emergency landing and evacuate the plane.

When the FAA initially approved Boeing's lithium-ion battery system in 2007, it lacked rules to govern their use on planes, and set "special conditions" for Boeing to follow to ensure they would be safe. When the two batteries failed in January, the FAA's process came under scrutiny and critics said the agency could have applied lessons from past battery incidents.

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