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Other Opinion: Lithium-ion batteries a work in progress

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Have a cellphone? A laptop? Chances are, you have a lithium-ion rechargable battery.

That same kind of battery is the focus of a safety investigation that has grounded Boeing Co.’s sophisticated new 787 Dreamliners.

Lithium-ion batteries are widely used in consumer electronics, as well as in some electric vehicles. But they’re not common to commercial aviation. Even though many Americans have these batteries in their pockets, briefcases and homes, it was a gamble to build them into the Dreamliner.

Lithium-ion batteries have had more problems than the bulkier, metal-based batteries used in older commercial jets. The same qualities that enable them to pack a lot of energy in a little space, recharge quickly and hold a charge also make them somewhat fragile. The larger they get, the less stable they become when damaged, overcharged or exposed to heat.

Tens of thousands of laptop batteries have been subject to product recalls due to the risk of fire. The Chevrolet Volt electric car got a black eye when its battery ignited after a crash test in 2011. A cargo of lithium-ion batteries brought down a 747 jumbo jet operated by shipping company UPS in 2010. The two pilots aboard were killed.

The Federal Aviation Administration recently put rules into effect that limit the transport of lithium-ion batteries in aircraft. The agency gave Boeing permission to use the batteries in its 787 only after spelling out conditions intended to ensure safety.

Boeing’s design for the Dreamliner took full advantage of the batteries. Most of the plane’s juice comes from generators operated by its jet engines. The batteries back up some systems and jump-start others, including the auxiliary power unit that provides lights and air conditioning in the cabin when the main engines are off.

The Dreamliner uses electric motors and electronic controls instead of heavy pneumatics to operate systems such as wing de-icers. That enabled Boeing engineers to cut out weight and bulk, which makes the new plane more fuel-efficient.

It would be no simple matter to redesign the Dreamliner without lithium-ion batteries.

For Boeing’s sake, let’s hope the investigation now under way of battery-related incidents on the Dreamliner turns up an easily corrected problem. It still could, conceivably, uncover an issue unrelated to the batteries. Chicago-based Boeing has a lot riding on its newest plane, which has attracted hundreds of orders from air carriers around the world.

The scrutiny could add to the general understanding of a widely used product. Lithium-ion batteries remain the standard for many common applications. It is in everyone’s interest to learn how they can be manufactured and operated more safely. With any luck, the attention being paid to this issue will spur new research and development of battery technology.

Lithium-ion batteries have been an important breakthrough. They helped to propel innovation and create jobs. iPhones and iPads with them have sold by the millions. Cutting-edge vehicles such as the Volt have proved that it is possible to operate cars solely with electricity stored on board: No gasoline engines needed to propel them.

Current-generation lithium-ion batteries are costly. Some researchers believe their chemistry puts a limit on performance. That probably makes them unsuitable for, say, powering electric cars over long distances.

A further breakthrough is needed. It might come from a different chemical composition, such as a blend of lithium and oxygen. It might come from nanotechnology, which involves manipulating matter on a microscopic scale.

The difficulties in making a practical battery that improves on the current technology should not be underestimated. The world has much to gain from advances in this area.

But all that amounts to gazing into a promising future. In the meantime, Boeing and its customers have a bunch of very expensive planes on the ground.

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