The entrepreneurial spirt that motivated Thomas Edison to start the Edison General Electric Company in 1890 blazes on in GE’s Energy Storage business, which powered up in September of 2011.
The $150 million start-up business includes a battery plant and a support team of research, design and marketing professionals.
The energy storage endeavor is in its infancy, but it’s expected to become the next $1 billion business for its $180 billion parent company, according to Prescott Logan, general manager of GE Energy Storage.
“We’re sort of like a new baby that’s learning how to walk and use everything, and so that’s what we’ve got to do this year, but this technology is fantastic and it’s definitely something that could be the foundation for a business that size,” he said.
The product expected to turn out such sizable profits is the Durathon sodium battery, being marketed for industrial applications in the telecommunications and electrical grid industries. The technology was refined right around the corner at GE’s Niskayuna-based Global Research Center.
GE officials said they chose to build the battery plant on their Schenectady campus for several reasons, including close proximity to technology resources at GE Global where the product was developed, support from state and local officials, and cooperation from their local union, the IUE-CWA Local 301.
Jim Sudworth, one of the original inventors of the technology, works for Beta Research and Development based in the U.K., a company acquired by GE in 2007. He flew from England to troubleshoot at the factory in late January.
Sudworth described the Durathon as a “world battery.”
“It’s independent of any climate or any environment,” he explained. “You can work in the Arctic, the Antarctic, the deserts, anywhere. Normal batteries have to be cosseted. They have to be kept either warm or cold or whatever. This battery works everywhere.”
Customers from as far away as Mongolia, Japan and Bangladesh have begun employing the batteries as backup power sources for cellphone towers and to support applications in electrical grids.
The 4.5 million cellphone towers that have popped up around the world all have some form of backup power, which is usually lead-acid batteries, like those found under the hood of a car, Logan said.
The Durathon battery, which is being marketed to emerging markets, offers several advantages in addition to the fact that it is oblivious to air temperature extremes. It has a battery life–up to five times longer than that of a lead-acid battery or maybe even more, depending on the application and the environment, Logan estimated.
When used in conjunction with a diesel generator to power a cellphone tower, the batteries help to reduce diesel fuel consumption by anywhere from 25 percent to 60 percent, he said. The generator shuts off once the batteries are fully charged, then the batteries run the tower until their charge gets low and the generator kicks back on again.
The reduction in fuel use also leads to a reduction in the number of refueling trips to the tower — trips that can sometimes be through dangerous territory.
“In some of these countries, it’s politically unstable and you don’t want to drive a truck up with diesel fuel on it because you might get pirated along the way,” noted Peter Kalish, product manager for the telecom market for GE Energy Storage.
One or two Durathon batteries, each about the size of a carry-on suitcase, are all that is needed to power a cellphone tower, he said. Hundreds of the batteries can be networked together and used to eliminate intermittence in the power flow generated by a wind farm or solar array.
When the wind is blowing or the sun is shining, the batteries are charged using excess electricity. When the sun goes down or the wind stops, energy production stops as well, but electricity is then discharged out of the battery so the energy flow remains even.
Groupings of the batteries are also being utilized at industrial sites in parts of the world where electricity is more expensive
during the day than it is at night. The batteries are charged at night, when electricity is cheaper, and the electricity is discharged from them during the day.
“We see a lot of these operations in Japan right now,” Logan noted.
The battery is also appealing to customers because of its green features: much of it can be recycled.
“It’s a salt battery. It’s not the kind of stuff that’s going to hurt the environment,” Logan said.
Officials have plans to use Durathon batteries as part of the energy management plan for the Schenectady-based battery factory.
“We figured we’d eat our own cooking,” Kalish joked.
The 190,000-square-foot factory where the batteries are produced employs 370 people, over 200 of them hourly workers. More hourly employees, especially those in skilled trades, are being recruited. By 2015 it’s estimated that the business will provide a paycheck for 450 workers, according to spokeswoman Christine Horne.
Logan declined to share production statistics, but said, “Every month we’re turning up the dial on output as we get more comfortable with our processes and quality.”
The massive factory was a hand-me-down, originally used for making casings for steam turbines. It was stripped down to the structural steel and renovated.
“It took us about a year to bring in all the equipment, get it installed, get it up and running, so we went from dirt floors to producing product within 12 months,” Kalish said.
The batteries, which take between 2 and 21⁄2 weeks to create, are made from scratch, starting with a clay powder that’s pressed and fired to form ceramic tubes that can conduct an electrical current. It takes about a minute to make each tube, and between 3,500 and 4,000 are produced every day, Kalish estimated. A series of the tubes are included in each battery.
The ceramic tubes are heated to 1,600 degrees centigrade in an oven the size of a car wash. There’s room for a second oven nearby, and space for additional equipment in many spots throughout the factory.
A $70 million expansion, announced when the plant had its formal opening in July 2012, is well under way, but 2013 is going to be a year when changes will be kept to a minimum, Logan said.
“We’ve had so much change, a new building, adding new people. We’ve just sort of got to digest where we’re at so we get a nice, stable process and then we can kind of worry about expanding again and growing in the future years.”
The factory features far more human workers than robots. It was left less automated because the battery-making process is an evolving one, Kalish said.
The operator teams that staff the factory do much more than show up at work and push a button on a machine, he noted. They have a part in how the factory operates.
“It’s very important for us to listen to what they say because they’re the ones touching the product, and if they say, ‘Hey, the machine doesn’t sound right today,’ usually they’re right, so we need to have them as part of this,” he said.
Researchers also have a strong presence on the factory floor.
Although 2013 is slated to be relatively change-free in the factory, workers are busy in the research center, coming up with improvements to the battery’s chemistry, packaging and electronics system. According to Logan, the changes are slated to roll out in 2014.