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