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Sustainable Energy

Inside GE’s New Battery Factory

High-tech ceramics are the key to making a new energy storage technology. Photographs by Kevin Bullis | Technology Review

To manufacture its new sodium-nickel batteries, which could be used to store power from wind turbines or help power remote cell-phone towers (see “GE’s Novel Battery to Bolster the Grid”), GE has opened a large factory in Schenectady, New York. Here’s a look inside it at some key steps in the manufacturing process. 

Slideshow:

About 60 percent of the factory is devoted to making a ceramic electrolyte. The process begins with large sacks of starting materials, shown here, which are mixed, chemically modified, milled, and dried to convert flourlike materials into materials that flow as easily as water and have the properties needed to consistently make a high-performance ceramic.

Slideshow:

The ceramic materials are pressed in a mold to give them their shape. Here a robot (the orange structure in the background) removes the white ceramic from the mold.

Slideshow:

The ceramics are packaged to help them retain their shape before being wheeled on carts into a large kiln (at center) for firing.

Slideshow:

A worker inspects the ceramic electrolyte after it’s been fired. 

Slideshow:

The electrolyte is next prepared for assembly into a complete battery cell. Here, workers apply a conductive carbon-based paint. Workers will add electrode materials and current collectors before sealing the cell together.

Slideshow:

A display shows the battery cell in various states of disassembly. In the foreground is the electrolyte. Also shown are metal current collectors and casings. The vials contain electrode materials that actually store energy in the battery.

Slideshow:

A worker inserts cells into a battery pack, which will include microprocessors for controlling the battery and a heater for bringing the battery to its approximately 300 °C operating temperature.

Slideshow:

Here the batteries are thermally insulated—to help them maintain their 300 °C operating temperature—and tested before being delivered to customers. 

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