Batteries planned for space station use technology employed on Boeing Dreamliners

WASHINGTON, D.C. — NASA is planning to install batteries in the International Space Station that use the same technology as the ones that grounded Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner fleet this week and are made by the same company.

Boeing is the prime contractor for the space station and is responsible for integrating hardware and software from many suppliers. In November, GS Yuasa Lithium Power of Japan won a contract to provide lithium ion batteries that eventually will help power the space station.

Boeing referred questions to NASA. Josh Byerly, a NASA spokesman at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, said the batteries for the space station use the technology employed by the Dreamliner batters, but are “radically different.”

Byerly said the battery would not be installed for several years and would be tested rigorously beforehand.

“Anything that goes up to the space station has got to be tested,” he said.

NASA will follow a Federal Aviation Administration inquiry into the safety of the lithium batteries but would make no immediate changes, he said.

“We’re going to pay attention to Boeing’s investigation,” Byerly said. “Right now, there’s no impact whatsoever.”

The lithium batteries made by GS Yuasa are getting a close look from federal investigators who want to know what caused two of them to overheat in two separate incidents 10 days apart in Boeing’s flagship aircraft.

The FAA grounded the Dreamliners Wednesday soon after the two Japanese airlines took their fleets out of service. The agency’s emergency directive cited the potential of damage to the plane’s structure and electrical systems by heat, smoke and flammable liquids released by a battery fire.

FAA tests in 2004 and last year showed that lithium battery fires could burn as hot as 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, well past the melting point of the composite material that makes up half the aircraft.

Days earlier, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood assured the public that the plane was safe.

NASA is looking to new technology to power the space station. It orbits the Earth every 90 minutes and is powered by solar panels, but needs batteries when the Earth blocks the sun. The lighter, more powerful lithium batteries will replace nickel metal hydride batteries that have been used by NASA for decades.

Boeing designers abandoned proven battery technology with the Dreamliner, a calculated risk.

“If there appears to be something better that achieves some of your objectives, engineers will want to use it,” said John Logsdon, professor emeritus of political science and international affairs at George Washington University and a member of the panel that investigated the Columbia space shuttle accident in 2003.

NASA and Boeing have conducted extensive tests of the batteries at the Glenn Research Center in Cleveland and at the Crane Naval Base in southern Indiana.

Tom Miller, an aerospace engineer at the Glenn Research Center, said the protections are built into the batteries to prevent short-circuits or heat buildup that can cause the batteries to ignite. They’re also encased in a tougher package that could contain a fire.

“The basic chemistry has been tested,” Miller said. “It’s all been safe at this point.”

Logsdon said that the combination of the Dreamliner problems, plus tests already planned by NASA, “is going to make these extremely safe batteries by the time they get into orbit.”

“I don’t see any particular cause for concern now,” he said. “It’s better to find it out when you can land the plane than be 200 miles above the Earth.”

On Thursday, Rep. Chaka Fattah, D-Pa., wrote to NASA Administrator Charles Bolden requesting that the agency help the FAA figure out what happened to the Dreamliner’s batteries. He cited NASA’s role in assisting Toyota fix acceleration problems in its vehicles that led to a recall in 2010.