GE's Battery Project

Brian Hicks

Written By Brian Hicks

Posted July 13, 2012

Companies that have tried to make and sell radical innovations in the battery market haven’t met with much luck.

General Electric (NYSE: GE) has never been a big player in that market. But its new Durathon battery has the potential to explode into a $1 billion per year business that has applications in telecommunications, renewable power, and much more.

A 45-member team at GE, overseen by CEO Jeffrey Immelt, has produced the Durathon, a molten salt battery intended to provide power to large industrial operations.

The Durathon operates by converting liquid sodium metal into standard table salt. It weighs almost 300 pounds, is as big as a suitcase, and functions at internal temperatures exceeding 500F.

But it packs a formidable punch, recharges quickly, boasts a long life, and is ultra-rugged.

According to GE, the battery remains stable over an external temperature range of -40F to 150F. It can store about as much power as conventional lead-acid batteries twice as big and outlast them by a factor of ten.

On July 10, Immelt unveiled a sales deal whereby GE would install 6,000 of these batteries on cell phone towers in Nigeria. Preparation is underway to introduce them to locomotives and giant mining truck.

And several U.S. wind power facilities are also making plans to incorporate the Durathon, including Arista Power (OTC: ASPW).

It remains to be seen whether GE’s brainchild can win out over finicky business models, manufacturing and logistics obstacles, and the dated standards that still make up the vast majority of commercial batteries.

Let’s not forget that the lead-acid batteries in our cars were invented back in 1859, while the smaller alkaline batteries date back to 1899. Since then, only evolutionary refinements have taken place, but no groundbreaking innovation.

And indeed, just recently several battery startups stumbled badly. Ener1 (PINK: HEVVQ) filed for bankruptcy back in January, while A123 Systems (NASDAQ: AONE), reported a loss of $125 million in their first quarter, Bloomberg reports.

Nevertheless, things are looking good for GE thus far, and part of it may be that their core model is based on a design innovation that has already survived extensive lab testing. At this point, any innovation that lasts a while is a good sign.

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