Flight Data Recorder Batteries are Long Overdue for an Upgrade, MU Researcher Suggests

COLUMBIA, Mo. – The whereabouts of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 continues to elude recovery crews and the public. The flight disappeared from radar less than an hour after takeoff. Rescue and recovery efforts have centered on locating the “ping” from the flight data recorder. However, the beacon was limited by the short lifetime of its lithium ion battery. Now, Patrick Pinhero, a chemical engineering expert at the University of Missouri, suggests that betavoltaics, a 60-year-old battery technology, can help extend the life of “black box” batteries, which could aid in research and recovery efforts.

“The current battery that powers the underwater locator beacon is a lithium ion battery that can operate for 30 to 40 days,” said Pinhero, professor of chemical engineering in the College of Engineering at MU. “However, battery technology exists that provides enough energy to power the beacon much longer. Betavoltaic batteries could power the beacon much longer leading to an increased chance of locating the downed aircraft.”

As seen in the recovery efforts with Flight 370, lithium ion batteries have a finite life once activated, Pinhero said. The actual operating lifetimes can vary depending on last scheduled replacement date (lithium ion batteries are normally replaced once a year). In many cases, larger lithium batteries can fail leading to overheating and fires.

“In terms of performance, a betavoltaic battery can run for years without replacement and never needs to be recharged.  It is unaffected by temperature and will not heat up even if shorted,” Pinhero said.

While implementation of betavoltaic batteries could take time, Pinhero suggests that an alternative could be devised where the betavoltaic battery becomes a charger for the current lithium ion batteries.  This would serve to extend the lifetime of the chemical battery already in use and would allow for a transition to the longer-lasting energy source.

Considering that searches for missing aircraft can last years, it is time for a significant upgrade to the underwater locator beacon’s power source, Pinhero said.

Patrick Pinhero is a professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering and the Nuclear Engineering Program at the University of Missouri. His research is focused on developing novel energy solutions through smart materials design and fabrication.  His collaborator in betavoltaics development is Alan Wertsching, a scientist formerly with the Idaho National Laboratory.

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