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Airbus warned of lithium battery risks a year ago: presentation

By Tim Hepher and Deepa Seetharaman

PARIS/DETROIT (Reuters) - Airbus warned the airline industry of risks related to lithium batteries almost a year before two safety incidents grounded 787 Dreamliners built by its chief rival Boeing , according to a presentation seen by Reuters.

The European planemaker spelled out lithium hazards at a forum of airline customers in March 2012, citing the risk of flames, explosion, smoke and leakage in the event of a so-called thermal runaway or uncontrolled battery overheating.

"The risks associated to lithium batteries require the attention of the entire industry," according to slides of the presentation by Christine Bezard, flight safety leader of the planned Airbus A350 plane that will also use lithium batteries.

U.S. and Japanese authorities are investigating a battery fire and a smoke incident on two separate Dreamliners in recent weeks, with attention focused on their lithium-ion battery power units.

Airbus, which plans to use lithium-ion batteries on its A350 jetliner, declined to comment on the presentation. Both Airbus and Boeing say their designs are safe.

Lithium-ion batteries are widely used in smart phones and hybrid vehicles because they are lighter, smaller and more powerful than traditional nickel or lead-acid batteries. But if managed improperly, lithium-ion batteries can also explode, with some posing a greater fire risk than others based on their chemical makeup.

Last year's Airbus presentation covered consumer products carried in the cabin or stored as baggage, as well as batteries used in emergency devices such as flashlights and beacons or, in a slide showing the A350, system batteries built into aircraft.

It said that the fire extinguishing gas Halon 1301 is effective in controlling open flames and the spread of fire in lithium-ion and lithium-polymer batteries and that water can stop the propagation of thermal runaway in a cargo shipment.

It did not say whether fire suppression systems would be installed with the main batteries on the A350, but industry sources say the design calls for hazardous fumes to be vented.

The lack of a fire suppression system on the Boeing 787 is one of the issues being examined by the National Transportation Safety Board as it investigates the Boston Logan fire. The battery housing is designed to contain any fire.

The 787 is the first passenger jet to use lithium-ion batteries for back-up and auxiliary power.

Airbus declined to comment on the design of the A350 battery, supplied by French company Saft . Saft says it will not comment on the A350, referring questions to Airbus.

"Airbus will carefully study recommendations that come out of the 787 investigation and evaluate whether they apply to the A350," Airbus spokesman Stefan Schaffrath said by email.

Besides the NTSB investigation, the Federal Aviation Administration is conducting a design review of the 787.

(Reporting by Tim Hepher in Paris and Deepa Seetharaman in Detroit; Editing by Alden Bentley)

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