"Unfortunately, what Boeing did to save weight is use the same batteries that are in the electric cars, and they are running into the same problems with the 787 as the problems that have shown up in electric cars," said Paul Czysz, professor emeritus of aeronautical engineering at St. Louis University.
The lithium-ion batteries in several Chevrolet Volts used for crash-testing caught fire in 2011. General Motors engineers eventually figured out that the fires were the result of a battery coolant leak that caused electrical shorts after side-impact crash tests. GM retrofitted the car with more steel to protect the battery. No fires were ever reported on real-world roads.
Jim McNerney, Boeing's chairman, president and CEO, said the company is working with the FAA to resolve the situation as quickly as possible.
"We are confident the 787 is safe and we stand behind its overall integrity," he said in a statement. "We will be taking every necessary step in the coming days to assure our customers and the traveling public of the 787's safety and to return the airplanes to service."
Mike Sinnett, chief engineer on the 787, said last week that the plane's batteries have operated through a combined 1.3 million hours and never had an internal fault. He said they were built with multiple protections to ensure that failures "don't put the airplane at risk."
The lithium-ion design was chosen because it's the only type of battery that can take a large charge in a short amount of time. Rechargeable lithium batteries are most widely used to power consumer electronics such as laptops and cell phones. But they are also known to short-circuit and start fires that burn extremely hot and are difficult to put out.