A local startup business unveiled by General Electric this week is developing fuel cells that can power large industrial data centers, entire neighborhoods and even developing countries.
That’s the goal, at least.
The technology is still several years away from commercialization, said Johanna Wellington, CEO of the new company, GE Fuel Cells.
“We don’t have anything for sale today,” she said. “What we’re doing now is scaling this technology to larger units.”
GE has been researching and developing fuel cell technology for about a decade at its Global Research headquarters in Niskayuna. About five years ago, researchers narrowed their focus on the advanced manufacturing possibilities of the solid oxide fuel cell, which yields a higher efficiency than other cells.
Around this time, Wellington made the move from GE’s Power & Water campus in Schenectady to Niskayuna, where she was tasked with finding potentially game-changing energy technologies. This one practically fell into her lap.
“We needed to identify if there was a different way to manufacture these fuel cells that ultimately would result in a product that could be viable in the mainstream,” she said. “Then we had this breakthrough.”
Typically, the manufacture of a solid oxide fuel cell involves stacking 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, Wellington said.
“But this is relatively fragile,” she said. “And it gets sandwiched between metal — a metal interconnect that pulls that energy out and combines it. We found a way to greatly simplify things. Rather than try to make this thin sheet of ceramic and handle this fragile material, we just spray it right onto the metal.”
Between the ease of the spray-on ceramic and the use of stainless steel as the metal interconnect (instead of platinum and rare materials), the GE team believes it has found the key to making the fuel cell work economically on a large scale. The spray also speeds up manufacturing time.
The team also found that this fuel cell, when combined with a GE Jenbacher gas engine, can reach an unprecedented 65 percent energy efficiency. The previous industry threshold was between 60 and 61 percent efficiency, Wellington said.
In addition, leftover thermal energy can be captured, allowing the cell to reach 95 percent efficiency.
“It really is a unique hybrid fuel cell design,” she said.
GE Fuel Cells will operate out of the 280-acre Saratoga Technology + Energy Park in Malta, owned by New York State Energy Research and Development Authority. There are currently 17 employees, with plans to increase to 30 in the near future.
“As we’re kind of building out larger and larger systems, we’re also outgrowing our space here in the Research Center,” Wellington said. “So we were looking for a space of our own that we could launch this pilot facility and we just happened to find a very nice facility in Malta.”
Equally exciting to Wellington is the business model of the new startup. It has its own board of directors and is backed by GE Ventures, which invests in promising startups in the fields of software and analytics, health care, energy and advanced manufacturing.
“I have milestone-based funding just like any other startup,” she said. “I have decision-making authority. This model allows us the speed of a startup but the backing of a large company like GE. If we need to find a new supplier or look in a new market, it’s fantastic to have the breadth of GE behind us.”