GE’s got a new in-house fuel cell startup

GE is using an innovation for manufacturing fuel cell technology as the backbone to launch an independent startup within the conglomerate, the head of the group, Johanna Wellington, told me in an interview on Monday. The 17-person GE team is now in the process of working on scaling up the fuel cell tech as well as the pilot production line, and plans to commercialize the product as early as 2017.

Fuel cells are big boxes that can generate energy through a chemical reaction. They operate a bit like a battery but instead of storing energy, they actually create energy through a reaction oftentimes using hydrogen and oxygen as a fuel source. GE has been working on fuel cell technology for decades but a few years ago its researchers discovered a new way to manufacture a key piece of the fuel cell.

Fuel cell boxes are made of stacks of metal plates that are coated in a catalyst material that triggers the energy-generating reaction. Oxygen and hydrogen flow over the stacks and the catalyst. GE’s fuel cells use a ceramic combination for the coating. Usually companies sinter these layers onto a metal sheet to make the stacks, but GE’s innovation is that it figured out a low cost way to spray the ceramic layers onto the stacks.

Image courtesy of GE
Image courtesy of GE

The spray technique was a technology that GE was using for coatings for jet engines. It’s an additive process that deposits three layers of the coating onto a metal sheet that makes up the stacks. Wellington tells me the spray method lowers the cost of making the fuel cell significantly, but GE declined comment on how much the product would cost when it’s available commercially.

When it eventually becomes a product, the fuel cell will actually be paired with a Jenbacher engine to make a hybrid fuel cell. The engine helps the fuel cell operate much more efficiently, and Wellington tells me that GE’s hybrid fuel cell will be 65 percent efficient. The idea is that retail operations and industrial customers — like a data center operator — would want to use this type of distributed clean power. Apple and other data center companies have bought fuel cells from Bloom Energy for this type of use.

GE thinks the fuel cell hybrid device is important enough to get its own separate company working on it. Wellington says that the startup model is an opportunity for GE to have the team work solely on the product and be able to operate quickly and nimbly. It’s a new business model for GE and it’s funded by GE’s venture arm GE Ventures. Wellington declined to disclose the amount of funds supplied to the startup. GE is hiring at its fuel cell startup in New York, and plans to grow to 30 people eventually.