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GE planning fuel cell startup for Malta

General Electric announced Tuesday it’s in the process of building a new fuel cell business in Malta

General Electric announced Tuesday it’s in the process of building a new fuel cell business in Malta from the ground up.

The conglomerate has begun leasing space in the 280-acre STEP park in Malta, where it has been upfitting a facility to serve as a pilot location for GE Fuel Cells — a startup company unveiled Tuesday in a report on its website. The business is an offshoot of a research and development program focused on fuel cell technology for the past two decades.

The startup is now possible thanks to a breakthrough in solid oxide fuel cell technology. This type of fuel cell can generate electricity at any location, so long as it has a supply of natural gas. It starts up quickly and produces lower emissions than conventional power plants. But unlike other fuel cell systems, it uses stainless steel in place of platinum and rare metals. In addition, the new cell system can reach an unprecedented 65 percent power generation efficiency.

“The cost challenges associated with the technology have stumped a lot of people for a long time,” said Johanna Wellington, advanced technology leader at GE Global Research and head of GE’s fuel cell business, in the report. “But we made it work, and we made it work economically. It’s a game changer.”

A team of professionals from the GE Global Research Center in Niskayuna, GE businesses and startup organizations within and outside of GE will develop the technology and test its market value to see if the startup could be viable as a full-scale business.

The news caused a whirlwind in the fuel cell industry Tuesday, boosting the fuel cell stocks of Canada’s Ballard Power Systems Inc. and Plug Power Inc., which is based here in the Capital Region.

Though GE Fuel Cells grew out of GE Global Research in Niskayuna, it will operate independently, with its own board of directors. It currently consists of 17 full-time employees and is actively hiring with the goal of reaching 30 employees in the “very near future,” said Liz Gordon, a spokeswoman for the project.

Efforts are currently underway to ramp up the facility, located at 107 Hermes Road, so it can meet pilot manufacturing capability. The facility has already been filled with robotic thermal spray equipment, fuel cell test stations, screen printers and towering bulk gas storage tanks. As a pilot facility, the space is far from a full-fledged plant, Gordon said.

“It’s too soon to tell how permanent this specific location will be, given the start-up approach GE is taking with this new business,” she said.

GE officials were unavailable to speak about the fuel cell technology Tuesday evening, but a post on outlined how the technology works:

Fuel cells are intended as battery replacements and use a simple chemical reaction involving the hydrogen molecules found in natural gas and oxygen. GE’s new fuel cell can generate one to 10 megawatts of power, and overall energy efficiency can grow to 95 percent when the system is configured to capture waste heat produced by the process.

“The fuel cell has no moving parts,” according to GE. “The guts of the cell look like a stack of cookies. Each cookie is a metallic plate with a maze of flow channels cut into the bottom and a square of black ‘icing’ on top. That icing is the core of the breakthrough that makes the solid oxide fuel cell work. It contains three layers made from special ceramic materials: the cathode on top, the anode on the bottom, and a dense layer of solid oxide electrolyte in the middle.”

GE used additive thermal spray technology normally used to protect parts inside a jet engine. The fuel cell system relies on hydrogen-rich fuel reaching 1,500 degrees.

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