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Boeing 787 to undergo FAA review. Is electrical power at fault?

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Eric Schultz/The Huntsville Times/AP/File

(Read caption) In this Jan. 27, 2012, file photo, Boeing's newest aircraft, the Boeing 787, sits on the tarmac at Huntsville International Airport. Federal investigators are probing a fire aboard an empty 787 in Boston, the latest glitch for a jet that uses unique electrical systems.

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In its new 787 "Dreamliner," Boeing has brought a new level of fuel efficiency to the skies by borrowing a page from earth-bound hybrids: battery power.

So when the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced Friday it would launch an investigation into the Boeing 787 because of a recent small electrical fire and fuel leaks, it raised a question if Boeing has pushed reliance on electric power too far too fast.

Boeing officials insist the plane is safe, and industry experts downplay the errors as typical growing pains for a new technology. The Airbus A380, now a staple of commercial flight, suffered an exploding engine and cracked wings in its early years.

The "Dreamliner" is propelled by fuel, but many of its onboard features depart from typical planes by using electrical power. The 787's engine start, auxiliary power unit, wing ice protection, and other units rely on electrical systems, instead of traditional pneumatics. This "no-bleed," electrical architecture allows the plane to produce thrust more efficiently as energy is not diverted away from the high-speed air produced by the engines.  

In other words, the 787's jet propulsion is used more for propelling the plane, and not powering the accouterments that make air travel safe and comfortable.

It's also the first Boeing plane to use fast-charging, lithium ion batteries, and is made with lightweight composite materials instead of aluminum.

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