Boeing 787 DreamlinerAs of this week, the NTSB investigation into the January 7 battery fire on the Boeing 787 Dreamliner is continuing. Preliminary indications are that the malfunction was serious and is likely to leave all 787’s in the United States grounded for weeks, if not months.

An unfortunate consequence of the 787 incident is that it raises serious concerns about the safety of lithium-ion batteries in the minds of the general public.  Government regulators will need to address this concern.  No matter that storing energy in a lithium-ion battery is far safer than storing a comparable amount of energy in a gasoline tank or a compressed natural gas cylinder.  The onus is on a new technology to prove its worth and to benchmark its safety relative to incumbent technologies.

More public information about the relative safety of lithium-ion batteries is sorely needed.  To address this need, the federal government should establish a national lithium battery safety center.  The safety center should be charged with testing and rating for safety all the different types of high power lithium-based battery systems offered for sale in the United States for automotive, aerospace, maritime and grid-supporting applications.  In addition, the center should be charged with benchmarking the safety of lithium-based batteries against the fire and safety hazards of other forms of energy storage.  The center’s findings and ratings should be published in a form that the public can easily understand. 

Determining and rating the safety of lithium-based battery systems would be helpful to the public and to the advanced battery industry.  Providing the public with comprehensible information about the relative safety of different technologies for storing energy, including lithium-based batteries, would do much to address concerns about what is still a generally unfamiliar technology.  Rating lithium-based battery systems against each other would also permit battery manufacturers and automotive OEM’s to compete for customers, in part, on the basis of safety, just as OEM’s compete today, in part, on their relative crashworthiness ratings.

Lithium-ion battery safety is a good news story, not a bad news story.  The true culprit in the 787 fire, as well as in all of the other battery fires that have recently made the news, is not the battery but the demand by modern airplanes, cars and consumer devices for more and more electricity.  Lithium-based battery technology is among the safest, if not the safest, way to provide that electricity to the vehicle or the device.  This is a story that must be told.

There is, of course, always room for improvement.  The advanced battery industry should welcome the addition of safety as a new metric on which battery manufacturers and their supply chain partners can compete.  The federal government should do its part to encourage this competition by providing objective, public data about the relative safety hazards of lithium-based battery systems and other forms of energy storage.