CellEra Raises Cash for Cheaper Fuel Cells

Israeli fuel-cell startup CellEra has kept its activities under wraps since it raised $2 million from Israel Cleantech Ventures last year. But a German press release from angel investor group BrainsToVentures has revealed the company has raised another $2 million, from BrainsToVentures and Israel Cleantech Ventures, and has developed its first prototype. CEO Ziv Gottesfeld confirmed the news, telling us the cash represents part of a larger round.

Gottesfeld also told us CellEra already is working with a major manufacturer and is integrating its fuel cells into backup power systems. CellEra plans to use its new cash to turn its working prototype into its first commercial product, he said, adding that the company aims to have products ready for the market in two years.

According to the release, CellEra believes it can cut fuel-cell development and manufacturing costs by more than 70 percent by eliminating the most expensive material – platinum. The precious metal, which is by far the costliest part of a fuel cell, is normally used as a catalyst to create the electrochemical reaction that converts hydrogen, air and water into electricity.

The key to CellEra’s platinum-free fuel-cell technology is its proprietary electrodes, Gottesfeld said, which are the positively and negatively charged areas where the reaction takes place. The company isn’t developing the platinum-free catalysts itself, instead working with partners that use raw materials such as iron, cobalt or silver, he added.

CellEra’s plans to initially target stationary applications, such as providing backup power for hospitals, which already spend more than $3 billion for lead-acid batteries each year. CellEra also plans to target the diesel-generator, telecommunications and information-technology markets.

Further into the future, the company also seems to be considering the elusive vehicle market. Christian Schütz, a partner at BrainsToVentures, told the Financial Times’ German edition that he expects CellEra to introduce fuel cells for hybrid cars by 2015.

Gottesfeld shied away from giving a date, saying that “given the flux in this market today, I would not venture to make any projections.” Still, he added that the technology could work “very nicely and cost-effectively” with batteries to extend the range of electric vehicles in the future.

If CellEra succeeds in significantly lowering costs, it could help fuel cells overcome one of its key obstacles. Fuel-cell companies, delivering huge promises and few mass-market products for decades, have long been an easy target for skeptics. The technology’s ability to convert fuel, such as hydrogen, into electricity with no emissions other than water vapor has led automakers to tout fuel cells as the next big thing for vehicles since at least 1993, when Ballard Power Systems originally demonstrated a fuel cell in a vehicle and planned to make it available in just a few years. But high costs, as well as infrastructure issues and some technical challenges, have kept the technology in the wings.

The CellEra announcement is part of a spate of recent news, including advances from automakers, customer announcements (see here and here) and new government programs in the U.S. and the UK, that may help to bring back a bit of optimism about the potential for fuel cells.