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Overcharged batteries suspected culprit in Boeing Dreamliner incidents

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By The Associated Press
Friday, Jan. 18, 2013, 5:48 p.m.

WASHINGTON — It's likely that fires on two Boeing 787 Dreamliners were caused by overcharging lithium ion batteries, aviation safety and battery experts said Friday, pointing to developments in the investigation of the Boeing incidents as well as a battery fire in a business jet more than a year ago.

An investigator in Japan, where a 787 made an emergency landing this week, said the charred insides of the plane's lithium ion battery show the battery received voltage in excess of its design.

The similarity of the burned battery from the All Nippon Airways flight to the burned battery in a Japan Airlines 787 that caught fire Jan. 7 while the jet was parked at Boston's Logan International Airport suggests a common cause, Japan transport ministry investigator Hideyo Kosugi said.

“If we compare data from the latest case here and that in the U.S., we can pretty much figure out what happened,” Kosugi said.

In the case of the 787 in Boston, the battery in the plane's auxiliary power unit had recently received a large demand on its power and was in the process of charging when the fire ignited, a source familiar with the investigation told The Associated Press. The plane had landed a short time earlier and was empty of passengers, although a cleaning crew was working in the plane.

The source spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak publicly.

The Federal Aviation Administration issued an emergency order Wednesday temporarily grounding the six 787s belonging to United Airlines, the lone U.S. carrier operating Boeing's newest and most technologically advanced airliner. The Japanese carriers already had grounded their 787s, and airlines and civil aviation authorities in other countries followed suit, shutting down all 50 Dreamliners that Boeing has delivered so far.

“Other batteries don't go this wrong when you treat them this badly,” said Jay Whitacre, an associate professor of materials science and engineering at Carnegie Mellon University. “The overall story here is these batteries are full of flammable electrolyte and they will burn if they are mistreated and something goes wrong.”

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