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GE, HVCC teaming up on fuel cells

Company envisions more affordable energy

Wednesday, August 27, 2014
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Joanna Wellington, general manager of GE Fuel Cells, and HVCC President Andrew J. Motonak   on Tuesday morning talk about HVCC's plan to install and operate a fuel cell power generation demonstration system at its Tec-SMART facility in Malta.
Photographer: Marc Schultz
Joanna Wellington, general manager of GE Fuel Cells, and HVCC President Andrew J. Motonak on Tuesday morning talk about HVCC's plan to install and operate a fuel cell power generation demonstration system at its Tec-SMART facility in Malta.

— General Electric’s newest startup, a fuel cell business that will operate from the Saratoga Technology and Energy Park in Malta, found the perfect place to demonstrate its breakthrough technology.

“They were looking for some place close by and you can’t get any closer than next door,” said Hudson Valley Community College President Andrew Matonak.

The startup facility and the community college’s TEC-SMART facility, a set of classrooms where it trains students in green technologies, are literally right next door to each other. And since GE Fuel Cells wanted a place to test out its work — a place where it could show that the stuff it’s about to manufacture for commercial customers is actually operational outside a lab — it just made sense to do so next door, officials said Tuesday.

GE officially launched its new fuel cell business Tuesday morning to a room full of business leaders, elected representatives and local officials, who received a tour of its new facility at 107 Hermes Road. At the unveiling, GE announced a memorandum of understanding it has reached with HVCC to install and operate next door a 50-kilowatt fuel cell power generation demonstration system. In addition to seeing lower energy costs, the college will develop fuel cell technology curricula and be able to provide hands-on training in the field to its students.

“I remember when [GE] visited with us in the spring,” Matonak recalled. “I and my team got really, really excited about this technology and the potential that it has, not just for Hudson Valley, but also for this region and for the world. So we’re really excited to have this opportunity.”

GE has been researching and developing fuel cell technology for about a decade at its Global Research headquarters in Niskayuna. But a recent breakthrough in solid oxide fuel cell systems so excited researchers that the conglomerate agreed to back an entire startup business dedicated to getting the technology to market, the company announced last month.

Johanna Wellington, general manager of the new business, walked a group of officials and media through the new facility Tuesday, outlining along the way what makes GE’s technology so promising.

The solid oxide fuel cell is composed of three layers of ceramic materials — a cathode on top, a dense electrolyte in the middle and an anode on bottom. Together, they have the thickness of about 10 sheets of paper.

At the Malta facility, a robotic arm equipped with thermal spray technology will spray a “very thin coating” of ceramic onto a stainless steel interconnect (a cheap alternative to platinum and rare materials typically used).

“Historically with fuel cell manufacturing, you’re trying to handle a thin layer of ceramic that can be very brittle,” Wellington said. “But the spray technology allows us to apply the ceramic right onto the metal substrate and the end result is very robust.”

The simplified process also allowed GE to scale the fuel cells to a format about four times as big as what the competitors are making.

The cells, when stacked, are able to create electricity. A 6-kilowatt stack measuring about a foot high on display Tuesday could generate enough electricity to power about six homes, Wellington said.

The system GE wants to bring to market is a hybrid — a fuel cell stack coupled with its Jenbacher gas engine. Together, they can reach an unprecedented 65 percent energy efficiency. If leftover thermal energy is captured, the cell can reach 95 percent efficiency.

“Since the days of Edison, our power distribution grid has been made up of centralized power — a large power station and big transmission lines,” Wellington said. “It’s the way that we all get our power today. What’s great about this technology is that it allows us to provide energy that is just as efficient and just as clean, maybe even better, in a smaller package that we can put where you need it.”

In developed countries like the U.S., the systems could augment existing power grids, relieve them at peak times, or keep the lights on should the grid go down during severe weather. In developing countries, they would be an ideal option for smaller communities in remote settings that aren’t yet hooked into a grid, Wellington said.

“It’s a great option to provide on-site powering in places like commercial or industrial parks, data centers or college campuses,” she said. “It’s great because it provides resiliency and reliability.”

Pete Bardunias, president and CEO of the Chamber of Southern Saratoga County, is excited by the technology’s potential to speed up new business developments.

“When we need to expand a facility somewhere, it can take a long time to get a new power plant built and new power lines in,” he said. “I just see this as a tremendous business opportunity, having listened to a lot of discussion about how long and difficult it can be to get power done. This opens up a whole new dimension.”

 
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