UPDATE: GE officially opens battery plant, announces expansion plans (with photo gallery)

General Electric officials formally opened the new GE battery plant today -- and immediately announc

General Electric officials formally opened the new GE battery plant today — and immediately announced plans for the plant’s first expansion.

They are putting in another $70 million in equipment to ramp up manufacturing and hiring another 100 workers to build more batteries. The plant is now up to 450 employees making batteries that will power trains, boats and planes.

The battery plant already has $80 million worth of orders, and GE Chairman and CEO Jeff Immelt said the operation could bring in $500 million in 2015.

“This should be a billion-dollar business by the end of the decade,” he said at the grand opening.

He also said GE will expand at the Schenectady-Rotterdam site if the battery market grows as he expects. His investors don’t care about labor costs, he said — they care about markets.

To make its better battery, GE gathers a rare ceramic material from all over the globe, bringing flour-like clay to the plant.

“It was a huge sourcing effort,” said plant tour leader Peter Kalish. “And you’ve not only got to find that material, you’ve got to get it here at the right time. Setting up that supply line was a huge effort over the last year.”

At the plant, the material is milled and dried into a product so fine that it no longer separates into particles when it’s shaken.

“What started out like flour, sticky and hard to use, now flows like water,” said plant worker Myles Peterson, who switched from the GE research and development center in Niskayuna to the new plant to develop this battery.

The material is pressed into a mold and fired in a kiln to produce ceramic tubes about the size of an ear of corn.

“This is the heart of the battery,” said worker Jeff Asadorian, who demonstrated the ceramic process.

Researchers also had to figure out how to bond nickel to ceramics, a “riddle” they solved to make the battery possible, workers said.

They put a metal and ceramic cap on each ceramic tube, add metal components, and surround the tube with insulation. A series of tubes create each battery, boxes about the size of three standard car batteries.

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