MALTA, N.Y. -- General Electric’s GE Fuel Cells unit is building a pilot facility in Malta’s Luther Forest Saratoga Technology and Energy Park, with large-scale demonstrations and prototype units under development.
In an article on its website, GE describes the fuel cell as a promising and difficult method of getting energy out of natural gas. The cell can generate electricity at any location with a supply of natural gas. One fuel cell can convert about 65 percent of energy in natural gas to electricity through a chemical reaction. The company believes that number could grow to 95 percent. The basic configuration of the system can generate between 1 to 10 megawatts of power.
A fuel cell works like a battery, using a simple chemical reaction to provide energy. In these cells, the reaction involves hydrogen molecules rich in natural gas and oxygen from ordinary air. The cell can get going quickly, does not need new transmission lines and produces lower emissions than conventional power plants.
Although the process seems uncomplicated, for decades, scientists have tried to make fuel cells work. Car companies, for example, have tried to make fuel cells work as a replacement for the internal combustion engine for more 20 years without commercial success.
"The cost challenges associated with the technology have stumped a lot of people for a long time," said Johanna Wellington, general manager and chief technology officer of GE Fuel Cells. "But we made it work, and we made it work economically.
GE scientists recently solved an important problem involving one iteration of the technology called a solid oxide fuel cell. The discovery let the company start building the new facility. GE Fuel Cells announced Tuesday that the pilot facility is already filling up with robotic thermal spray equipment, fuel cell test stations, screen printers and towering bulk gas storage tanks.
The resulting fuel cell technology could soon start producing electricity around the world.
"We are so excited about this breakthrough," Wellington said. "Now we are building commercial prototypes with the same equipment we’ll use for manufacturing. This accelerates our path to market."
She is running her pilot development facility with a startup’s energetic mentality.
"We have all the speed, agility and focus of a small startup while leveraging the strength of a big company," she said.
Todd Alhart, communications and public relations director for the GE Global Research unit, agreed: "GE Fuel Cells has the support and expertise of the larger General Electric corporation," he said.
The pilot facility currently has a staff of 20. Wellington said hiring continues, and she hopes to have 10 additional employees by year’s end.
"These are electrical and mechanical engineering positions," she said.
The fuel cell business grew out of GE Global Research, but it now operates as an independent unit with its own board of directors. Wellington has milestone-based internal funding.
"It’s a unique approach," she said.