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Elon Musk: I can fix Boeing's battery problem

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March 11, 2013

The Boeing 787 Dreamliner on display in Paris

The Boeing 787 Dreamliner on display in Paris

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Elon Musk says he's still waiting for a call from Boeing to fix the jumbo jet maker's overheating Dreamliner battery problem. For the past few months, Boeing's 787 fleet has been grounded in the United States following a lithium-ion battery that caught fire in flight. The National Transportation Safety Board was unable to determine the cause of the fire, but the Tesla and SpaceX CEO says the problem is clear to him, and he's willing to "do the fix" for Boeing.

Musk first made his desire to help his competitor in the commercial space race known on Twitter in January, and over the weekend during his keynote at the South By Southwest Interactive festival in Austin, Texas, he said he's still waiting for Boeing to respond to his offer.

Musk told the audience he was sincere in his offer of assistance and didn't mean it as an attack on Boeing. In fact, what followed was a brief primer a la Musk on lithium battery technology that sounded more like a sales pitch from a guy who would be happy to ink a new contract with a major manufacturer.

Musk says that Boeing outsourced the battery for the 787, and that the company that received the battery contract from Boeing also outsourced the job, and so on, resulting in what Musk called "nested outsourcing," which "resulted, I think, in a breakdown in communication."

As for the physical cause of the battery meltdown, Musk claimed that the cells used in the 787 are too big and that the gaps between them are not big enough, creating a cascading overheating effect that led to the fire.

"We're still happy to help them with the fix, or just do it for them," Musk reiterated in front of a capacity crowd in Austin's Convention Center.

Source: SXSW

About the Author
Eric Mack Eric Mack has been covering technology and the world since the late 1990s. As well as being a Gizmag regular, he currently contributes to CNET, NPR and other outlets.   All articles by Eric Mack
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20 Comments

Elon Musk should stop selling the battery issue and allow FAA and the Professional Engineers at Everett fix the B-787 Electrical system. This entire Musk brain fart is based upon the notion that jet engines are electric start and that is a false notion.

John P. Tarver
11th March, 2013 @ 10:05 am PDT

With apologies in advance for inevitable hasty typos, this demands a response: For the record, my stake, financially in all of this is ZERO; as someone who's been eyeball deep in Boeing insiders,NASA engineers, think tank heads, test pilots and PhD's and lithium battery experts since this all blew up, it's time to let you in on a few things. As a pilot, safety officer and Boeing fan, however, I do hold a passionate interest in seeing Boeing survive and grow past this-but current leadership needs to go. At the top of the FAA and DOT, both Huerta and LaHood have shamed themselves and are now under pressure to save face while equally under pressure to allow Boeing execs to abuse a gullible and uninformed public. But first onto solutions, and then, setting the record straight:

Chip Yates, of Yates Electrospace has been trying to set his batteries on fire since he's planning a round the world all electric, midair recharging record flight. Now there's someone with credibility to spare...

We last heard from Mr. Musk on the eve of his dustup with the NY Times and revelations of battery fires of his own. His widely circulated comments drew much press, but and greatly swung opinion that Boeing had a savior.

In fact, Mr. Musk was a bit late; as already explained in several venues, his solution of adding spacers left much to be desired.

First: By altering the thermodynamics of the battery pack, even favorably, you alter the assumptions made for battery management: algorithms need to be revalidated, thermal imaging and extensive testing, everything gets thrown out the window. But first, on to his earlier suggestion:

By adding spacers and air gaps, you're ignoring the fact that the rectilinear GS Yuasa cells shed heat differently than the cylindrical cells Mr. Musk uses in his cars. There's a scaling issue here, and the geometry of the battery installation and the individual shape and placement of the cells is a guaranteed ticket to thermal runaway, since the battery management unit and charger are 'dumb' units, far underspecified and lacking in broad data and fine scale monitoring. Further, they lack real-time imaging and tracking of heating rate vs charging state CELL-TO-CELL, and as such are hard pressed to make intelligent decisions on thermal state or performance.

Lacking a liquid cooling loop, Mr Musk's proposal allows for hot spots which occur as radiative heat transfer flashes heat from cell to cell. In their sandwiched environment, this too is a recipe for fast rising temperatures-all in the absence of means to carefully tailor each cell's thermal life.

Localized heating and thermal asymmetries in the pack also create physical stresses which thin the polymer separator and offer lithium dendrites to poke through. Dendrites have long been a bane of this type of battery; one way to avoid them is by denying favorable thermal conditions for their formation.

Flammable electrolyte: In a prismatic cell, sandwiched among others, the electrolyte is experiencing heating and expansion; we've seen the blown out, bulged cells in the pictures. You don't tend to get fire and explosion from something that's been carefully run at optimal temps, but according to some, air gaps or forced air cooling would suffice.

I've tabled silicon oil and a ceramic nanosphere heat transport mechanism; high efficiency, light weight; if it checks out, you get a non-reactive cooling loop offering precise thermal management and ZONAL control of each cell:overheating can be precluded by aggressively managing the system to keep it well in 'trim'; if you lose control of temperature, game over.

A 'bad' or 'dumb' charging system will absolutely cook even a good battery if it can't keep the cells from being charged/ discharged at excessive rates. If heat blooms deep in the pack aren't sensed and countered, you're on your way to a thermal event.

Boeing executives and the media who cashes their checks have masterfully exploited the public. Last week, we had the disgrace of retired USAF Major General and NTSB former chair Mark Rosenker on CBS, following FAA Administrator Huerta's Capitol Hill appearance with salesman like claims that Boeing's 'fix' was in.

Don't bet on it.

What you CAN count on is more press releases and a media tsunami as Boeing uses DC influence and Madison Avenue and publishing world contacts to drum up support for their comically contrived solution to a problem they vehemently denied only weeks ago.

There's much, much more to say than this space allows, but below, from my challenge to Boeing, you might find a little material to kick around...

This is in response today's Chicago Tribune, where as above, we are told of magic fixes and high visibility names and execs pronouncing victory over the much denied problems that have dogged Boeing for over six years>

"More smoke and mirrors. Boeing's leaders have had quite the carbon footprint between their torched credibility and the smoke and mirrors campaign to keep the idea of a 'fix' in play.

Reporters are the new pawns in the media war, running to file reports short on facts and long on hot air from Boeing's Ministry of Information. The reporters who didn't get sent to Rome to watch the Vatican are stuck watching Boeing HQ for smoke signals. Marketing VP Tinseth seems to have forgotten a cardinal rule of credibility in marketing: it's better to keep one's mouth shut than to try to tell someone else's hopeful lie.

In the face of more damning revelations from NTSB, you'll soon be treated to more press conferences, statements, posturing and hollow claims, and finally, a triumphant declaration of victory and progress as they gain traction with the FAA to allow testing of the 'fix' to a problem they denied existed only weeks ago.

FAA Secretary Huerta: step carefully; you lost face in the first press conference with McNerney and LaHood, and you seemed to be under either duress or undue influence during your Capitol Hill appearance; maybe it's time to step aside to avoid the appearance of impropriety or having allowed Boeing execs to exert pressure...

Since their first claimed certification trials and testing ran "200000 hours", lets do this: Get back to us after you've prepared a public, open and transparent testing regimen, and lets talk after 200000 hours of testing; after all, you do want legitimacy, don't you? Get ready for MY questions which come from NASA, Sandia National Laboratory, DoD, Stanford, Purdue, among other places.

Notably absent are engineers and scientists who don't want to risk their careers and certifications going to bat for Boeing's laughable concept of a 'fix'. Let's talk algorithms, thermodynamic models, let's see results, proof, demonstrations, peer review, infrared imagery of the cells, and data runs from each, along with logs, proof and verifiability. All you've done is create a fireplace and chimney for a battery you said couldn't catch fire and promised would ventilate. Why should anyone trust you now?

Instead of a statement of sincere regret and a apology, a rededication to what made Boeing great, plus an invitation to scrutinize, what we're instead treated to is scurrying lobbyists and conference calls between Chicago and DC as you wriggle to get approval to fly the fireplace for rigged tests by an FAA you've already proven to have manipulated and abused. It's a weak excuse for engineering and it only exposes your failure to get it right as you now strain to avoid tough questions.

You had SIX years to get this right, now you say you miraculously fixed it all in six weeks, but all you offer is hot air and press conferences.

Your employees are gagged, unable to say what they really want to-but there are cracks in the dam. Do you feel the strain? Look; there's one now...

Boeing execs: Gauntlet thrown. Make contact and show me what you've got; you're going to go up against a panel of Boeing insiders, test pilots, laboratory heads, testimony from inside the 787 program, battery experts, and engineers from NASA, DoD and DARPA programs. If you really have a fix, it's time to stop manipulating stocks by playing with investor confidence and put your money where your mouth is. You're not ready for real questions and you're not ready for cross examination. Go home and try to scrape up some credibility before you slither back out. I'm waiting. Yes, it's personal, and no; you don't want to face me, I've got friends and family in Boeing cockpits and cabins, in the plant and in the sky.

Boeing execs latest contribution to aeronautics is the Monday morning press release.

With each passing week, the statements of 'confidence' have moved from CEO McNerney to Conner, to Marketing VP Tinseth; it's engineering by press release, and by mid day, more papers will pick up on the latest heavy breathing headline from the puppet media that cashes Boeing ad dollars while never asking the penetrating questions.

Now, it's the VP of Marketing telling us how safe the plane will be. Wasn't it already safe? Wasn't that what we were told between the JAL battery fire and explosion and the inflight battery thermal event and smokeout aboard the ANA flight, only days apart? 137 passengers and crew were exposed to toxic, corrosive smoke and gases.

Nice job guys: you promised a one-in-ten million flight hour failure rate and said you had a way to ventilate smoke and molten battery effluent. Now, you've got two aircraft in need of extensive inspection for smoke and soot effects in their avionics, and 137 exposure cases to monitor. At least two people have already been injured in fighting fires caused by your battery and its charging/management system. No conscience, none at all. Next you want extended operations for five and a half hours from land or nearest diversion airport? (ETOPS 330) Good luck with that.

787 battery fires and explosions go back over six years. The only thing new this time is that the plume is now coming from Chicago, as Boeing execs burn through credibility and good will as their claims go up in smoke."

Ball's in your court, Boeing execs; your employees and this nation deserve better.

Roland Delhomme
11th March, 2013 @ 10:19 am PDT

Mr Musk is more like Tony Stark every year.

Brian Mcc
11th March, 2013 @ 10:30 am PDT

That's absurd. Don Sadoway at MIT and other leading experts in lithium battery tech have backed Musk's opinion all along.

In what way does Musk explaining the issue and offering to to help not "allow the Professional Engineers" and FAA to fix the problem?

Is this a feeble attempt to suggest Musk is not a "Professional Engineer" because he doesn't have an engineering degree? Being the lead engineer of a rocket and spacecraft now docked with the ISS (that uses lithium batteries) just ain't good enuf for that title?

Mark Hoheisel
11th March, 2013 @ 11:25 am PDT

There is precedent to Boeing's behavior. When Aviation Partners first approached the company with their proposal that winglets would enhance the performance of the 737 line, they were told that they didn't know what they were talking about. Several years later, Boeing paid a hefty sum for an equity stake and use the winglets on several different models. Their institutional arrogance is breathtaking. As an aside, I would like to know where the FAA was during testing.

Robt
11th March, 2013 @ 01:07 pm PDT

Sorry to correct you John P. Tarver but as the official Boeing web site points :

787 NO-BLEED SYSTEMS: SAVING FUEL AND ENHANCING OPERATIONAL EFFICIENCIES :

The 787's engine-start and APU-start functions are performed by extensions of the method that has been successfully used for the APU in the Next-Generation 737 airplane family. In this method, the generators are run as synchronous starting motors with the starting process being controlled by start converters. The start converters provide conditioned electrical power (adjustable voltage and adjustable frequency) to the generators during the start for optimum start performance.

Unlike the air turbine engine starters in the traditional architecture that are not used while the respective engines are not running, the start converters will be used after the respective engine is started. The engine- and APU-start converters will function as the motor controller for cabin pressurization compressor motors.

Normally, both generators on the APU and both generators on the engine are used for optimum start performance. However, in case of a generator failure, the remaining generator may be used for engine starting but at a slower pace. For APU starting, only one generator is required.

The power source for APU starting may be the airplane battery, a ground power source, or an engine-driven generator. The power source for engine starting may be the APU generators, engine-driven generators on the opposite side engine, or two forward 115 VAC ground power sources. The aft external power receptacles may be used for a faster start, if desired.

This entire Musk brain fart is based upon the notion that jet engines are electric start and that is a "TRUE" notion.

C.McC
11th March, 2013 @ 06:45 pm PDT

All said and done , highly qualified personnel have failed to arrive at any conclusion about the "cause/s" !

So what next ?

It proves that conventional approach has been an utter failure .

Hence , some unconventional and non conformist mode has to be tried , ofcourse , no trial and error method . Either too primitive OR too imaginative method . Remember , inventors have mostly been the least 'qualified' persons of their respective times. They , generally , were the cynics of their times but totally dedicated and committed .

Mock no one . Who knows from which corner of earth or the brain of which human will the solution emerge .

S/he may be the most obscure person on the face of this so called 'advanced' world !

Er. A.K.Mittal
12th March, 2013 @ 04:25 am PDT

@roland

"In their sandwiched environment, this too is a recipe for fast rising temperatures-all in the absence of means to carefully tailor each cell's thermal life."

One of the things Tesla pioneered is single cell electronics that watch for critical parameters, including thermal overload. That's one of their 'secret sauces' and what allows for rapid charging. Plus their packs have liquid cooling. And all this was engineered at least four/five years ago.

Perhaps Musk is not the best person to explain Tesla's tech, but I have no doubt their pack technology is one of the best, if not the best.

Chris Maresca
12th March, 2013 @ 10:10 am PDT

Does Tesla use batteries and doesn't SpaceX also utilize electric power? There must be a knowledge base there from which Musk must be basing his comments and is it foolish or naïve to think differently and dismiss his perspective?

Munoz-Nieves Jose
12th March, 2013 @ 10:27 am PDT

Would it be at all possible to retrofit an emergency RAM air turbine in a pod under a wing ?

L1ma
12th March, 2013 @ 10:32 am PDT

Wow,

Smart of Bob Lutz ignoring this thread.

He solved the heat issue long ago with the Volt and the Converge.

Special Cooling liquid, special radiator.

Would Alan have solved this had he stayed? Who knows.

I don't think that Elon has anywhere as sophisticated a solution with his Teslas. And I suspect that a side Impact would be terribly dangerous with his stuff. But that new minivan with the gull wing doors is awfully nice. The design work may well be better than the engineering.

b

Island Architect
12th March, 2013 @ 11:15 am PDT

In my very humble opinion the Boeing Head Tech guys, SHOULD listen to Mr "Tesla", as they invented the systems on the Dreamliner when battery tech was 10yrs old.

Elon Musk has a decent reputation, and I for one would personally give Anyone who offered to help a phone call, and store the arrogance for when you have the problem genuinely fixed.

PaulYak
12th March, 2013 @ 11:29 am PDT

Breaking now: let's see how well Boeing thought of the input; they've now got to ante up, as FAA just gave a green light to Boeing's fix from weeks ago; y'know, before all the latest from NTSB.

Watch this develop; nothing left for them to hide; specifics have to spill now.

Roland Delhomme
12th March, 2013 @ 03:44 pm PDT

Commenters pretending all this guy has done is make cars. He is also running a now $billion + aerospace company that employs a high number of ex NASA engineers. Not likely that hes going to outline the entire spec sheet for a technical fix in a speech, but to think he doesn't have those specs requires a bit of citation before random internet commenter is more qualified then the guy regularly putting things into orbit and producing high end cars based on the very technology in question.

mystixa
12th March, 2013 @ 06:25 pm PDT

scrap the batteries if you need juice use an electro magnetic generator similar to elev trains or the super man ride. I think good ol nikola tesla has a design that has proven to work, but what am I thinking ... the IBEW would never allow a device that efficient, it might create millions of jobs and new industries.

Crook Ofraud
12th March, 2013 @ 07:17 pm PDT

@Crook, the idea that we have somehow ignored Nicoli Tesla's brilliance is an oft overplayed meme of modern fringe "scientists". The original Tesla was indeed brilliant, but didn't solve any great misteries of science and wasn't left ignored - indeed he is well recognized in many places as the founder of the power generation techniques commonly in place. "Tesla coils" have been part of spark plug assemblies for years. Tesla is not holding some great secret with him in the grave, rather I suspect that the solution you think is so obvious would disrupt cell phone and GPS usage for hundreds of miles and send most aviators to an even earlier grave from extremely high radiation exposure - or be thermodynamicly impossible.

Back to Boing, I think they have indeed gotten themselves in a bit of a jam - they have spent too long doing the politics game and forgotten that they were once innovative, which means that sometimes you have to admit you screwed up and actually fix things. I would still rather fly in a Boing plane than pretty much anything else, but it is time to stop playing games and start really fixing the problem or else people will start fearing flying again, and that will be really bad for Boing business.

Charles Bosse
13th March, 2013 @ 07:47 am PDT

mystixa- i agree...

billybob1851
13th March, 2013 @ 05:56 pm PDT

Much as I read with interest the loooong post by Roland, I need to ask the question, since my knowledge only relates to something rather slower - electric bikes. Q:- Are Boeing using LiFePO4 chemistry in these batteries and if not why not. They do NOT catch fire or explode.

Pete_Morrison
14th March, 2013 @ 09:13 am PDT

interesting, @Pete_Morrison, thanks!

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lithium_iron_phosphate_battery#Safety

Kurt Hansen
14th March, 2013 @ 05:24 pm PDT

Boeing is using lithium cobalt oxide batteries. Chosen for weight, not for safety or stability.

I bet the "fixed" batteries will weigh more than Li-Fe-PO4 would have weighed, if they'd chosen it in the first place.

James Donnaught
29th August, 2013 @ 09:09 pm PDT
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