Let’s face it: On the road to commercialization, fuel cells have seriously lagged behind other cleantech solutions, such as advanced batteries, solar power, or wind. Whether they’re for consumer electronics, the power grid or vehicles, they’re perpetually a few years away from hitting the market. But now they’re getting some help from the feds — this week the Department of Energy awarded $41.9 million to 12 companies working on portable fuel cells for electronics, and larger fuel cells for both backup power and vehicle applications.
The biggest chunks of the DOE funding will go toward telecommunications applications. Sprint Nextel (s S) plans to use $7.3 million to demonstrate 1-10 kw fuel cell systems for backup power for emergency communications infrastructure. And ReliOn is getting $8.6 million to set up 180 fuel cells as backup power across the AT&T wireless network in central and northern California. The phone companies are looking at the value of using fuel cells vs. current technologies, such as batteries and diesel-fueled generators, for backup power, as fuel cells could require less maintenance for remote areas.
While government funding could help advance certain projects, it’s still a struggle for many fuel cell companies. MTI MicroFuel Cells, a unit of Mechanical Technology, (s MKTY) is getting $2.4 million to improve its product and cut costs. Last week, MTI said it would voluntarily pull its shares off the Nasdaq, after receiving a letter from the exchange warning of an involuntary delisting due to its shares not meeting a minimum required price.
Jadoo Power, which is getting $1.8 million from the DOE, has also struggled to find a market for its fuel cells. The company, which makes a fuel cell in the 50-watt-to-2-kilowatt range that uses ammonia borane as a fuel source, refocused its business model last year to target military applications like powering radios for soldiers in the field. The refocus also coincided with Jadoo bringing in its third CEO in less than a year.
The other companies getting DOE cash are FedEx (s FDX),PolyFuel, Anheuser-Busch, Nuvera Fuel Cells, Delphi, Plug Power (s PLUG), Genco, and Sysco (s SYY). The Energy Department said there’s also $72.4 million in cost-share financing from the companies, putting the total value of the funding at $114.3 million.