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GE Develops Recyclable, Rechargeable Batteries for Cell Tower Backup

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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A person’s arsenal of wireless communications devices—smartphones, tablets, laptops, et cetera—places a heavy burden on surrounding cell towers. But when storms or power surges interrupt electrical service, these towers are forced to rely on a costly and environmentally unfriendly combination of lead-acid batteries and diesel generators to keep wireless users connected.

GE on Tuesday unveiled a new battery that, it claims, can provide more backup capacity for telecommunications providers and utilities at a fraction of the cost. The company’s new Durathon batteries are half the size of conventional lead-acid batteries but can hold their charge 10 times longer. The batteries, which rely on a chemical reaction between electrically charged sodium and nickel compounds called halides, operate at temperatures ranging from 25 to more than 280 degrees Fahrenheit and can be recharged as many as 3,500 times.

GE says it designed Durathons to power cell towers during disruptions in electrical service. The U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) requires wireless carriers to have backup power at most of their cell sites. Often, diesel generators automatically kick in when the batteries cannot provide enough power. In densely settled areas towers typically have backup for two to four hours, depending upon the amount of call traffic. GE claims that towers operating in remote regions sometimes rely on their diesel generators up to 16 hours each day, due to intermittent disruptions in power. By the company’s calculations, a Durathon battery installation—as opposed to one using lead-acid batteries—could cut diesel generator use in half in those areas. This in turn could cut the generator’s CO2 emissions by about nine metric tons per year, according to the company.

Backup power has become a major issue for mobile phone service. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, wireless carriers spent hundreds of millions of dollars in the Gulf states on new cell towers and backup systems to help prevent widespread outages experienced during that storm. At the time, the FCC wanted to require telecoms to provide eight hours of backup power on every cell-phone tower in the country. The carriers resisted, citing the size and cost of the backup equipment needed to make that happen. The Bush administration later shot down the requirement. Energy storage technology such as the Durathon, which GE claims will work for 20 years before needing to be replaced, makes such requirements more realistic.

The company claims that Megatron Federal, a South African engineering firm that helps build power generation, transmission and telecommunications infrastructure, has committed to buying 6,000 Durathon batteries. Megatron plans to use the new technology to provide backup power in telecom installations in Nigeria, a country notorious for power outages that should put GE’s new technology to the test.

Durathon image courtesy of GE

About the Author: Larry is the associate editor of technology for Scientific American, covering a variety of tech-related topics, including biotech, computers, military tech, nanotech and robots. Follow on Twitter @lggreenemeier.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. jtdwyer 8:39 am 07/11/2012

    The article states:
    “GE claims that towers operating in remote regions sometimes rely on their diesel generators up to 16 hours each day, due to intermittent disruptions in power.”

    I think that the ‘sometimes’ used here occurs far less frequently than is being implied by the battery manufacturer – self-serving assessments such as this should be dismissed out-of -hand. I recall living in a farmhouse for several years long ago, but I don’t recall excessive power outage occurrences.

    Wouldn’t a diesel generator that might be used a couple of hours a year, on average, have minimal environmental impact? Conversely, don’t some batteries (that must be continuously or repeatedly charged) produce caustic atmospheric emissions?

    An operating temperature range floor of 25F degrees would seem to be inadequate for much of the country for a significant part of the year – when (especially rural) power outages might be most likely (due to icing & snowfall)…

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  2. 2. jerryd 3:22 pm 07/11/2012

    I agree with JT as most of this article is hype, exaggeration.

    Diesel, NG have no problem handling blackouts so it’s UPS battery only needs at most an hrs worth of charge.

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  3. 3. BrianSchmidt 5:02 pm 07/11/2012

    I understand that electric vehicle batteries may acquire a second life as power storage when they no longer provide adequate driving range – seems to me they might have a similar use here for cell towers.

    There won’t be many such batteries available for another decade, but regular hybrids started getting popular eight years ago. If their batteries are big enough, maybe they can do the same thing, and there should be a lot of them available pretty soon from cars that were heavily utilized.

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  4. 4. jerrys 10:26 am 07/12/2012

    @jtdwyer, a farmhouse is not a “remote location”. A mountain top only accessible with a 4WD truck on a logging road would be more like it. And no, power to these sites are not as reliable as one would like. It’s not at all unusual for them to lose power for several hours, and it can occur several times a year.

    As for the temperature – that’s not a problem at all. Why do you think they have buildings at cell tower sites? It’s not just to keep the rain off. Electronics are temperature sensitive also, and the buildings are there for climate control – especially in the winter.

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  5. 5. Wayne Williamson 6:06 pm 07/17/2012

    I wish they would have mentioned the amount of energy stored (kilowatt or megawatt hours) and also the cost.
    Just wondering if this would be useful(cost/energy wise) for a house installation….

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  6. 6. delspace 9:50 pm 07/17/2012

    @jtdwyer RE: Caustic emissions. I doubt it, the Na and Ni ions can not be volatilized at the working temp of these batteries. Only a spray could be emitted and that is unlikely unless copious gases are produced. Sprays are also easily contained and don’t usually travel far.

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