Dreamliner Battery Maker Also Holds NASA Space Station Contract

Boeing Co.’s battery woes may not stop with the Dreamliner.

A unit of Kyoto, Japan-based GS Yuasa Corp., whose batteries are now under investigation after incidents that led to the worldwide grounding of Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner fleet, won a contract in August to supply lithium-ion battery cells to help power the International Space Station. Boeing oversees all contract work at the space station as the National Aeronautics Space Administration’s prime contractor.

The batteries that will be supplied to NASA are different than the product used in the Dreamliner because the station requires power cells specifically designed for space, said Josh Byerly, a NASA spokesman at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

“Once Boeing finishes its investigations it will update us on whatever they find is the root cause of the problems,” Byerly said.

The space agency doesn’t plan to reconsider its use of battery cells from the company’s GS Yuasa Lithium Power unit before Boeing’s own investigation is complete, he said.

“These are orders for future batteries for use in the next several years,” Byerly said in a phone interview. He didn’t specify a time frame for the work.

The Federal Aviation Administration this week ordered U.S. flights of 787s halted until airlines can show the plane’s lithium-ion batteries “are safe and in compliance,” according to a Jan. 16 agency statement.

Third-Tier Contractor

The FAA’s move, its first in 34 years to ground an entire plane model, set off a race to identify the reason for a battery-fault warning on a 787 operated by All Nippon Airways Co. and a fire on a Japan Airlines Co. jetliner.

GS Yuasa Lithium Power is a third-tier contractor that supplies Pratt & Whitney’s Rocketdyne unit, itself a subcontractor to Chicago-based Boeing. Carri Karuhn, a spokeswoman for Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne, which is owned by United Technologies Corp., referred questions on the ISS contract to Boeing.

Todd Blecher, a Boeing spokesman, declined to comment about the orders for battery cells to be used at the space station.

The contract to develop the battery cells for the space station is one of GS Yuasa Lithium Power’s biggest accounts, said Curtis Aldrich, the company’s director of business development. He declined to specify a value.

“This is a large individual contract,” Curtis said in a phone interview. “The International Space Station is such a unique vehicle.”

Safety First

A previous contract for GS Yuasa for lithium-ion battery development was worth about $229,000 in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, 2011. The company’s work with NASA was first reported by Nextgov.com.

There’s little chance that NASA will allow anything unsafe on the ISS, said James Oberg, a former engineer for the space shuttle program.

“There’s a much more stringent testing program to even get on board the cargo hold of a space system to get up into space compared to carrying luggage onto a commercial airliner,” Oberg said in a phone interview. “It requires guarantees of non-flammability, non-leakage of toxins -- it can’t even smell bad.”

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