THE INTRODUCTION OF THE 787 DREAMLINER, Boeing’s new state-of-the-art aircraft, has not been without turbulence. In January, the aircraft was grounded by regulators due to fire concerns with its on-board lithium-ion battery systems. Manufacturers of both the aircraft and the batteries worked with regulators and others to get the Dreamliner back in service, and some of the aircraft affected by the grounding are flying again.
Beyond the immediate technical questions swirling around the Dreamliner’s on-board batteries is the bigger concept of the inherent pros and cons of new technology. Like the two-edged sword used by medieval knights, new technology can be double-edged. An innovator many centuries ago realized that using a sword sharpened on both edges was an improved battle tool, but one that came with new risks: the user had to be even more careful that a careless back-hand did not inflict self-damage. Similarly, new technology makes our world a better place, but it also introduces new and sometimes unforeseen hazards.
Lithium-ion batteries have risen to the top of the rapidly evolving technology development for portable power supply systems, a crucial part of today’s electronic and digital world. They come in all shapes and sizes, are used in everything from laptop computers to electric vehicles to locomotives, and help feed our immense, consumer-driven hunger for improved power sources with greater energy densities.
With the proliferation of these batteries comes a growing awareness of the possible hazards this new technology presents, including fire, and of methods for handling them. For professionals working in the safety infrastructure, those methods include built-in fire safety measures and manual intervention techniques. The good news is that through research, training, and other means, we are actively addressing these areas of concern and providing credible, solid mitigation strategies.
To address built-in fire safety measures, the Fire Protection Research Foundation
, working with property insurers, recently conducted two research studies to address the inherent hazard characteristics of lithium-ion batteries. Specifically, the two studies sought to clarify, through full-scale testing, the comparative flammability characterization of common lithium-ion batteries (typical of all consumer sizes) with other standard commodities in storage. This research is providing clear direction on the optimum approaches to take when designing built-in fire protection systems, such as sprinklers, for storage warehouses and similar bulk-handling activities. The studies are available at the Foundation’s website, nfpa.org/foundation
To address manual intervention techniques, a separate research study is focusing on the concerns that emergency responders have with the hazards posed by large lithium-ion batteries in electric vehicles. This unique effort is funded by the Department of Energy, the Department of Transportation, and the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, with in-kind support from car makers and others.
Full-scale tests conducted at the Maryland Fire Rescue Institute have demonstrated that there isn’t much difference between a “typical” vehicle fire and one involving an electric vehicle and that responders can safely handle these fires with relatively minor tactical adjustments. The full report, scheduled for release this summer and available at nfpa.org/foundation, will address further details.
All of this is good news. Both research efforts are excellent examples of the safety infrastructure being proactive and jumping in front of perceived hazards before they manifest themselves to historic proportions. The partnerships that have formed with these efforts represent the Fire Protection Research Foundation and NFPA’s ability to pull together diverse groups to minimize the perceived hazards of new technology.
Casey C. Grant, P.E., FSFPE, is the research director of the Fire Protection Research Foundation.