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Why are the Dreamliner's batteries malfunctioning?

A Boeing 787 Dreamliner operated by All Nippon Airways (ANA) sits on the tarmac after an emergency landing at Takamatsu Airpirt in Takamatsu, west of Japan, on Jan. 16, 2013. The FAA announced Wednesday that it was grounding all 787 Dreamliners until they could pass a safety inspection.

At the White House on Friday, an energy pioneer will receive the National Medal of Science. Physicist John Goodenough helped develop lithium ion batteries that are used in phones, cars, and the new Boeing Dreamliner now grounded due to problems with the batteries in its backup power system.

Boeing plans to stay with lithium ion batteries on the Dreamliner, even though they're at the center of inquiries into severe fire damage, battery explosion, and battery failure.

Goodenough, of the University of Texas, says the key is battery engineering. It takes lots of lithium ion cells combined to get the energy a plane needs. They have to share the work.

"If you haven't got that management correct, and one does more work than the others," Goodenough says, "the first thing you know that one gets not. And when that gets too hot, you get a fire."

In the lithium ion family, other batteries are more fireproof. So Boeing could sub those in. It's a matter of managing the risk.

"If you're putting a premium on efficiency and you want the lightest energy storage device possible, lithium ion batteries are really about the best we've got right now," says Seth Fletcher, senior editor at Popular Science, and author of "Bottled Lightning: Superbatteries, Electric Cars, and the New Lithium Economy."

No word on when the investigations end. Dreamliners are grounded, but the company has 800 more on order.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this report incorrectly identified one focus of the inquiry into the Dreamliner’s lithium ion batteries. It should have stated that the inquiry is, in part, looking at a battery explosion in Boston last month.

About the author

Scott Tong is a correspondent for Marketplace’s sustainability desk, with a focus on energy, environment, resources, climate, supply chain and the global economy.
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