Fuel Cell Startup Oorja Scores Nissan Deal

oorja-protonics-logoNissan’s (s NSANY) assembly plant in Smyrna, Tenn., has yet to start churning out electric vehicles, but the facility is already putting alternative fuel technology to work. After an 18-month trial period, the automaker and Fremont, Calif.-based startup Oorja Protonics (one of Sequoia Capital’s first cleantech investments) has announced a deal to deploy Oorja’s direct methanol fuel cells at the facility — a move that the companies say will eliminate the need for more than 70 electric battery chargers using nearly 540,000 kilowatt-hours per year.

With Oorja’s fuel cells, Nissan will use methanol to charge the batteries in what are known as material handling vehicles, or “tugs,” which are used for hauling materials around the factory. The fuel cells generate electricity through an electrochemical reaction, rather than by burning the methanol, providing a constant “trickle charge” for the batteries and leaving water and heat as the byproducts.

Nissan and other Oorja customers like this idea because it helps the batteries and other components last longer and requires less maintenance, although it offers an imperfect solution in terms of carbon emissions and environmental impact when the fuel is derived from fossil fuels like coal and natural gas. Methanol can also be derived from biomass and landfill gases, however.

Founded in 2005, Oorja has raised at least $21 million from Sequoia and DAG Ventures. CEO Sanjiv Malhotra told us early last year that the startup is targeting the battery market for fork lifts, pallet trucks and other material handling vehicles, as opposed to consumer electronics or cars and trucks, calling this power range the “sweet spot” for Oorja’s key technology: a relatively powerful fuel cell in a compact system. Now, if the methanol used to fuel those devices comes from renewable sources, that will be even sweeter.