By Claudia Assis, MarketWatch
SAN FRANCISCO (MarketWatch) -- Recent battery problems on board one of Japan Airlines' Boeing 787 Dreamliners and Tesla Motors' issues with a power adapter have rekindled concerns about the evolving technology that has made the aircraft, the electric car, and a lot of other products possible: lithium-ion batteries.
There are many variants designed for a wide number of applications. But one thing lithium-ion batteries have in common: They are not cheap.
In electric cars, the cost of a lithium-ion battery pack capable of storing enough energy to provide a range of a few hundred miles is still too high for most consumers. But for the time being, we seem to be stuck with them.
The battery of the future will likely still contain lithium, a lightweight element that can be paired with other materials. In any case, a breakthrough is years down the road and a good decade from commercial manufacture.
And then there's public perception: Consider a run-of-the-mill, conventional Honda Civic, one of the most popular cars of all time.
Drivers may find it unsettling to know a fully-fueled Civic's gas tank holds the explosive equivalent of 1,000 sticks of dynamite. Yet, while car fires are not uncommon, they fail to attract much attention beyond roadside rubbernecking.
That's simply not the case with Boeing's (BA) Dreamliner batteries or with high-end electric cars. Lithium-ion batteries store less energy than a car's gas tank, but any time there's energy stored there's a potential for fires -- and bad PR for both Boeing and Tesla. (TSLA)
Tesla is managing its battery problem well, and Tuesday's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recall would be more aptly called a software upgrade, said Fred Schlachter, a fellow and consultant at the American Physical Society and a retired physicist with the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
For Boeing, it will likely take a long time for its engineers to figure out exactly what went on at Tokyo's Narita airport. Japan Airlines reported seeing smoke from the aircraft on Tuesday and an investigation by U.S. and Japanese authorities is ongoing.
Boeing redesigned the Dreamliner's battery pack about a year ago after an incident at the Boston airport -- but "it treated the symptoms, not the causes of the problem," Schlachter said. It is still not fully known what caused the first incidents and it will likely take a long time to figure out the reasons for Tueday's incident, he added.
"We have not tamed the internal combustion engine, we have accustomed the customers" that fires are relatively normal, Schlachter said. For electric cars and other products that use the lithium-ion batteries, there's not much history and perspective to go by.
"We accept the incidents," he said. "The reassuring part is there's much less energy in a battery than in a car's tank."
The primary goal is still a battery that can store more energy, thus offering a larger range, doesn't cost more, and it is not impractical in terms of size, Schlachter said.
Meanwhile, a lot of research is being carried out to find ways to reduce lithium-ion batteries' combustibility without reducing their performance, but a breakthrough in research of new materials is at least five years away and about a decade from widespread commercialization, said Dan Abraham, a scientist with the Argonne National Laboratory outside Chicago.
"It is really hard to nail down a winner at this time," he said. It could involve the use of different electrolytes in the battery pack, or adding certain additives to the electrolytes, or both, to prevent fires. Materials tried, however, are still pricey and performance is not great, he added.
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-Claudia Assis; 415-439-6400; AskNewswires@dowjones.com
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01-15-14 1452ETCopyright (c) 2014 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.