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GE’s molten salt battery offers lessons

What does it take to create a better battery? Makers of electric vehicles, smart phones and renewable-energy gear want to know.

For a 45-person internal startup at General Electric, it took the financial backing and technical support of an AAA-rated company with more than $140 billion in annual revenue. It also helped that the team chose a proven battery design that had been under development for 30 years before GE got involved.

The result is the Durathon, a molten salt battery that went on sale in September 2011, providing backup power for cell phone towers, among other uses.

There are plenty of ideas for new batteries; the problem is commercializing them. Today’s cars still rely on lead-acid batteries that date back to experiments done in 1859, while consumer electronics are powered by alkaline batteries that trace their roots to 1899. Innovators come along regularly, but in the past year a slew of battery startups have hit rough patches.

Startups stumble
Ener1, which was pledged $118 million of federal aid to develop lithium ion batteries for electric vehicles, filed for bankruptcy in January. Massachusetts battery maker A123 Systems lost $125 million in the first quarter.

Even with its built-in advantages, GE’s nascent Energy Storage Technologies business unit wrestled with the same challenges that afflict less pampered startups: a constantly changing business model, performance constraints imposed by the chemistry itself, finicky manufacturing processes and heated arguments between different parts of the development team.

“At one point in 2010, I was feeling a little lost,” said Prescott Logan, the unit’s general manager and a 10-year GE veteran with an MBA and an undergraduate degree in economics. “We went through some fights, some serious fights.”

One clear lesson from GE’s experience is that choosing the right elements off the periodic table is only the start. The hard part is producing the battery in large quantities with high quality and at low cost.

“In theory, anybody else could make this battery. To which I say, ‘Good luck,’ ” said Sandor Hollo, a manufacturing expert who moved from GE’s lighting business to work on the project.


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