Are Batteries to Blame for the Dreamliner 787's Problems?

Following a second significant incident involving a Boeing 787 Dreamliner, investigators are focusing on the lithium-ion batteries used in the new airplanes.

"The battery was always going to be a focus of the investigation into what's happening with the Dreamliner," says Hans Weber, aviation consultant with Tecop International Inc. "This incident is only going to reinforce that."

Smoke in the Cockpit, Strange Smell in the Cabin

On Wednesday, an All Nippon Airways flight in Japan made an emergency landing after battery warning lights went off in the cockpit. According to the National Transportation Safety Board, the ANA crew "reported smoke in the cockpit and an odor in the cabin. The airplane subsequently landed, and passengers and crew evacuated via emergency slides."

(Read More: Japan: The Test Case for Boeing's Dreamliner Woes?)

ANA says the initial investigation shows "the main battery in the forward electronic equipment bay was discolored and the electrolysis solution had leaked."

Boeing, the FAA and the NTSB are each sending investigators to Japan to look into what happened on the ANA flight. While it may take some time to determine exactly what went wrong, it is clear investigators will zero in on the battery and see if there are any similarities between the ANA flight and the Japan Airlines Dreamliner that caught fire while parked at Boston's Logan Airport on January 7th. After the JAL flight from Tokyo to Boston landed and the passengers and crew exited the plane, a maintenance worker reported the fire. Boeing says the source of that fire was a lithium-ion battery that powered the auxiliary power unit in the airplane.

Safe Batteries or Risky Technology?

One reason the Dreamliner is revolutionary is because it uses lithium-ion batteries to generate much of the electricity on the 787. This allows the planes to be more fuel efficient since electric powered systems have replaced some of the mechanical powered systems. As promising as the conversion to lithium-ion batteries is for increasing efficiency, it is also a controversial change.

787 Dreamliner aircraft operated by All Nippon Airways Co. (ANA) stands on the tarmac after making an emergency landing in Takamatsu, Japan.
Yuzuru Yoshikawa | Bloomberg | Getty Images
787 Dreamliner aircraft operated by All Nippon Airways Co. (ANA) stands on the tarmac after making an emergency landing in Takamatsu, Japan.

Lithium-ion batteries on airplanes have long been a concern for the FAA because they can be volatile. In 2007, the FAA outlined its concern about lithium-ion batteries on airplanes writing, "In general, lithium-ion batteries are significantly more susceptible to internal failures that can result in self-sustaining increases in temperature and pressure. ... The metallic lithium can ignite, resulting in a self-sustaining fire or explosion."

(Read More: Airbus to Boeing: My Plane Is Better Than Yours)

Boeing says the batteries used in the Dreamliner are safe. Dreamliner chief engineer, Mike Sinnett, says Boeing has logged more than one million hours of flight time with lithium-ion batteries and stands by their reliability. When asked by reporters if he thinks the Dreamliner is safe, Sinnett said, "I am 100 percent convinced the airplane is safe to fly. I fly on it myself all the time."

Searching for a Common Problem

With two incidents involving the lithium-ion batteries on Dreamliners, investigators are now looking for what those batteries have in common. Are they part of a batch of batteries built at the same time where something was overlooked? Was the wiring part of the problem? There are scores of questions and a host of data Boeing, the FAA and the NTSB will review. One thing that will help investigators is the fact the Dreamliner is perhaps the most "wired" plane ever built, feeding back data to Boeing and the airlines flying the planes. That data could help investigators pin point what exactly went wrong and did the Dreamliner handle the malfunction as designed.

Meanwhile, Boeing continues building the Dreamliner in Everett, Washington and Charleston, South Carolina. The current pace of production is five Dreamliners per month. By the end of the year, Boeing is planning to build ten per month.

"It could be we see more groundings, that is quite possible." says Richard Aboulafia, an aviation consultant with the Teal Group. "But none of this points to an aircraft that is fundamentally flawed."

(Read More: Dreamliner Glitches: How Serious Are the Problems?)