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Updated Tuesday, January 22, 2013 at 06:45 AM

Japanese regulators widen probe of 787 batteries

By Anna Mukai and Chris Cooper
Bloomberg News

Japan’s transport ministry said it will conduct a second probe of the GS Yuasa Corp.’s headquarters in Kyoto and add a British supplier to an investigation into faults that have grounded Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner fleet.

Officials are returning to Yuasa’s offices Tuesday after a first search was done Monday with U.S. regulators, the ministry said in a statement. Investigators also are being sent to the U.K. to probe the maker of a valve actuator for the 787, the ministry said, without identifying the target company.

Yuasa’s batteries are the focal point of the investigation into the causes of a battery fire on a Japan Airlines plane at Logan Airport in Boston and an emergency landing by an All Nippon Airways jet in Japan.

Boeing said last week it won’t deliver more 787s until the Federal Aviation Administration confirms the safety of the Dreamliner’s flammable lithium-ion batteries that are part of the electrical system supplied by French company Thales.

“I can’t think of any example where the equipment provider gets sued in a case like this,” said Edward Stacey, a London- based analyst at Espirito Santo Investment Bank.

Regulators, airlines and aircraft makers have responsibility for safety, giving suppliers protection unless their product doesn’t meet requirements, he said in a phone interview.

Monday’s search at GS Yuasa started at 11 a.m., and the ministry sent one official, while the FAA sent two people to Kyoto, Shigeru Takano, a director for air transportation in the ministry’s Civil Aviation Bureau, told reporters in Tokyo.

The company is fully cooperating with the authorities, Yuasa spokesman Tsutomu Nishijima said.

“We’re checking parts and the manufacturing process to ensure work was carried out appropriately,” Takano said.

Another spokesman, Hiroharu Nakano, said Jan. 17 that the company will first look at the battery but check to see if there is an issue with the entire electrical system.

The Japan Airlines plane whose battery caught fire Jan. 7 in Boston while the jet was on the ground didn’t exceed its intended voltage, the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board said Sunday. The agency’s statement didn’t identify a cause of the battery fire.

Even though it appears the voltage limit wasn’t an issue in that case, it’s possible the battery failures in that plane and in an All Nippon Airways plane that made an emergency landing in Japan last week may be due to a charging problem, according to John Goglia, a former NTSB board member and aviation-safety expert.

Too much current flowing too fast into a battery can overwhelm it, causing it to short-circuit and overheat even if the voltage remains within its design limit, he said.

“The battery is like a big sponge,” Goglia said. “You can feed it with an eye dropper or you can feed it with a garden hose. If allowed, it will soak up everything it can from the garden hose until it destroys itself.”

There are so many redundancies and safeguards in aviation that when an accident or mishap occurs, it almost always is the result of a chain of events rather than a single failure, he said.

Coveted contract

GS Yuasa’s multiyear, multimillion-dollar contract to supply batteries to Thales, announced in June 2005, was an opportunity to offset losses from sales to carmakers.

While the Kyoto-based company said in 2009 that lithium-ion batteries for vehicles will become a core business for the company, it since then hasn’t made a profit on the technology.

“They had been hoping to make up for the lack of sales to carmakers by selling to Boeing,” said Jun Yamaguchi, an analyst at Credit Suisse in Tokyo. “Any inability to sell in the aviation market is going to make the lithium-ion battery business even more unprofitable for GS Yuasa.”

GS Yuasa gets about 42 percent of sales from outside Japan, selling lead-acid batteries for forklifts and other machines in countries such as China and Thailand.

The company first demonstrated its technology in a prismatic lithium-ion battery in 1993 and won its first order from Boeing in 2005.

“We doubt that lithium-ion battery business profitability will improve significantly” during the fiscal year ending in March 2014, a team of analysts led by Masahiro Nakanomyo overseeing Japan’s precision-instruments industry at Barclays in Tokyo, wrote in a report dated Nov. 26.

U.S. officials and Boeing are investigating whether defective batteries from the same batch caused failures in the two 787 Dreamliners that triggered the plane’s worldwide grounding last week, according to two people familiar with the incidents.

Scope unknown

If proved true, flaws may be confined to a small number of 787s, rather than indicating a systemic fault with the plane’s design or manufacturing, and could speed resumption of flights on the jet. The people, who weren’t authorized to speak publicly, said the information is preliminary and investigators haven’t yet ruled out other causes.

Electrolyte was found to have leaked from the battery box of the ANA plane that had the emergency landing, according to Japan’s transport ministry. The interiors of the battery box were found to be damaged.

All Nippon owns 17 Dreamliners, while Japan Air has seven. Boeing has 848 orders for the model, including the 49 aircraft already in use.

The 787 is Boeing’s most technologically advanced plane, featuring a body made of composite materials instead of the traditional aluminum. It conserves fuel by using five times more electricity to power its systems than other planes, and is Boeing’s first model to rely on lithium-ion batteries.

All four plants where GS Yuasa builds lithium-ion batteries are in Japan. The batteries supplied to the Dreamliners are made at a factory in its Kyoto headquarters.

The electrical system, which the battery is embedded into, is manufactured by Thales, Europe’s biggest defense- electronics maker.

Boeing chose lithium-ion batteries for the 787 because they hold more energy and can be quickly recharged. It won regulators’ permission to use lithium batteries in the jetliner in 2007, three years after U.S. passenger planes were barred from carrying nonrechargeable types as cargo because of their flammability.

A unit of GS Yuasa won a contract in August to supply lithium-ion battery cells to the international space station.

Boeing oversees all contract work at the space station as NASA’s prime contractor.


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