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GE boosts bets on battery technology

Part of its $17 billion Ecomagination initiative, GE is increasing research in batteries for transportation and energy storage on the electricity grid.

NISKAYUNA, N.Y.--With a 1914 electric car displayed outside, General Electric last week hosted a symposium on batteries for transportation and the electricity grid.

GE has been working on battery-powered vehicles for decades. Although those projects didn't yield mass-produced electric vehicles, GE executives said that the conditions for increased use of batteries on the grid and in vehicles have never been better.

Click on the image to see a photo gallery of battery-related projects from GE's New York research labs. Martin LaMonica/CNET Networks

The same conditions that are driving GE's Ecomagination initiative--a limit on natural resources like fossil fuels and fresh water as well as regulations to cut carbon emissions--make batteries a good area for research, said Mark Little, senior vice president and director of GE Global Research.

GE last week said that revenue under its Ecomagination program is expected to go up 21 percent this year to reach $17 billion. GE's annual clean technology research and development will go to $1.4 billion.

Even with the recent drop in oil prices, the trend toward battery-powered vehicles is strong because of high energy prices and the lower carbon footprint batteries have compared with gasoline engines, Little said.

"My own view is that even if 5 to 10 percent of vehicles become electrified, that's a huge opportunity," Little said.

GE is looking to work with Chrysler on a Department of Energy-sponsored research project for a battery-powered passenger car, Little said. The project, which has not yet been finalized, will involve using different types of batteries in a vehicle. GE is investing in further development of its sodium-metal chloride batteries, now used in train locomotives.

Last week, GE upped its investment in lithium-ion maker A123 Systems, injecting another $30 million in the company. GE is working with A123 Systems in integrating its batteries into the all-electric Think town car and a hybrid bus platform.

Both GE and A123 Systems are developing storage for power grid operators. Integrating several hours of storage on the grid would allow utilities to use the distribution network more efficiently and integrate intermittent wind and solar energy more.