GE has rolled out innumerable products in its 122-year history, but the company’s fuel-cell technology, which promises to be relatively affordable and ultra-efficient, is getting a unique treatment. Earlier this month, the company announced GE Fuel Cells, an internal startup that intends to commercialize hybrid fuel-cell technology researched by GE the past five years.
The technology, which will compete with Bloom Energy’s solid oxide fuel cell product, runs on natural gas–a debatably sustainable resource, but one that’s more reliable than wind and solar.
In the past, fuel-cell technology has been too expensive to go mainstream. The solid oxide fuel-cell technology used by GE and Bloom swaps expensive materials like platinum for cheaper and more efficient materials like stainless steel and ceramics, making it more viable for commercialization on a large scale. GE claims that its technology can get to 65% efficiency–better than anything else out there today.
The company uses the same thermal spray technology used to coat its jet engines on its fuel cells–a feat that’s possible because the ceramic used in a fuel cell’s electrolyte is similar to what’s found in jet engines (fuel cells have a cathode on top, an anode on the bottom, and a layer of solid oxide electrolyte in the middle). The spray technology coats the ceramic in layers, so it’s extremely scalable and can cover a large surface area.
“With our manufacturing technology, we expect in the long run it should come in at a lower cost. That’s also aided by the fact that we’re so high in efficiency,” says Johanna Wellington, general manager and chief technology officer of GE Fuel Cells.
GE has previously launched internal startups on a smaller scale, but this venture is unique, according to Wellington. “We’re just like any other startup. We have milestone-based funding, a board of directors–it just so happens that it’s funded by GE and the board of directors is GE employees,” she says. We’re quick, agile, and we can adjust as we need to. At the same time, we have the breadth of GE to fall back on.”
GE Fuel Cells is still early stage. The startup is building a pilot manufacturing plant, and commercialization is still a few years away. Once the fuel-cell technology is ready for purchase, there are a handful of ready-made markets. Places that need constant onsite power, like data centers, are ideal locations for fuel cells. As severe weather events increase, cities and large businesses are also starting to seriously think about installing fuel-cell technology as a back-up in case the grid fails. And in developing countries, fuel cells are an efficient and relatively clean way to build out the power infrastructure without the need for large transmission lines.
Survivalists might see fuel cells as an eventual alternative to the grid, but that’s not part of GE’s marketing strategy. “I don’t know that it will ever replace power stations out there, but it provides a lot more options,” says Wellington.