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Lithium batteries had problems in laptops, before the Dreamliner


With its fleet of 787 Dreamliners grounded indefinitely, Boeing is looking carefully at the lithium-ion batteries that power much of its innovative electronics. 

These hi-tech batteries are also used in many popular gadgets, from laptop computers to iPhones to electric cars. They make your devices lightweight, and they recharge quickly.

But, they’re also famous for overheating. They were headline news in 2006, when nearly every major computer company had to recall laptops, because some batteries had caused fires or other damage. 

"The drawbacks are also the aspects that give them high energy," says Dan Doughty, a chemist and battery consultant, formerly with Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico. "When batteries are exposed to high temperture, they start to chemically degrade internally. So, high temperature is bad for the batteries."

By "high" temperatures, he means exposing them to an environment over about 100 degrees F during charging, or over about 120 degrees during storage.

There have been ongoing laptop recalls, because of batteries overheating.

Typically, companies design cooling systems around the battery to prevent any problems, says Doughty, such as "sensors, good electronic control, and also safe design that allows battery to be robust, and if there's a failure, to have it not propagate."

Such controls have kept most lithium ion batteries as reliable as any other type. The Chevy Volt had to demonstrate all types of safeguards before it passed federal scrutiny, and presumably the same was true of Boeing's 787.

What to watch for

Doughty says he’ll be interested to hear, as the Boeing investigation unfolds, what might have caused high temperatures around the batteries.

The Dreamliner batteries were made in Japan.

Keith Seinfeld is a former KNKX/KPLU reporter who covered health, science and the environment over his 17 years with the station. He also served as assistant news director. Prior to KLPU, he was a staff reporter at The Seattle Times and The News Tribune in Tacoma and a freelance writer-producer. His work has been honored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the Knight Science Journalism Fellowships at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.