U.S. Energy Department offers $65 million for fuel cell technology research

By Todd Woody
December 23, 2010

IMG_0398Got a great idea for fuel cell technology? The United States Department of Energy has $65 million to spend.

The funding will go toward research and development on fuel cell components with the goal of reducing costs and increasing reliability of the solid-state devices that convert hydrogen, natural gas or another fuel into electricity through an electrochemical process.

“The department will be funding research and development initiatives related to fuel cell system balance-of-plant components, fuel processors, and fuel cell stack components such as catalysts and membranes, as well as innovative concepts for both low and high temperature systems to help meet commercial viability targets in terms of cost and performance,” the Energy Department said Wednesday. “Applicants will likely include teams of university, industry and national laboratory participants.”

An additional $9 million will be available for an independent analysis of the cost effectiveness of fuel cell technology research efforts.

Fuel cells have been something of a stepchild of the green energy boom of recent years. The technology can generate electricity 24 hours a day – unlike solar and wind energy – emit fewer greenhouse gases than conventional power plants and can be plugged directly into the power grid. But high costs and thorny technology hurdles have limited fuel cells’ use.

Earlier this year fuel cells burst into the media spotlight when Bloom Energy, a once-secretive Silicon Valley startup that had secured more than $400 million in venture funding, announced in February that it had overcome many of those obstacles. The company unveiled its solid oxide Bloom Energy Server at a media event attended by the Valley’s tech elite and the 100-kilowatt fuel cells have been installed a plethora of Fortune 500 companies, including Google, Wal-Mart and Bank of America.

Unlike the bulky industrial look of past fuel cells, the Bloom Energy Server is encased in stainless steel and evoke Apple’s design esthetic. The Bloom fuel cells retail for between $700,000 and $800,000 though state and federal incentives can cut that cost in half.

Adobe Systems, for instance, placed a dozen Bloom Energy Servers on the roof of a parking garage in September to supply a third of the electricity consumed by the three office towers in its downtown San Jose, Calif., headquarters. The maker of the Flash media player then bought contracts for methane captured from a Pennsylvania landfill to offset the fuel cell’s use of natural gas. Adobe paid the tariffs for the methane to be put in interstate pipelines though the company acknowledged it’s unlikely to actually be used in San Jose.

Other fuel cell companies, such as United Technologies Corp. and FuelCell Energy, also have seen sales rise.

According to a recent report from International Partnership for Hydrogen and Fuel Cells in the Economy, 22,000 fuel cells were shipped worldwide in 2009, a 40 percent increase from the previous year.

“A decade of sustained global research, development and demonstration (RD&D) is now producing the necessary technological breakthroughs for hydrogen and fuel cells to compete in the market,” the report stated.

(Photo: Todd Woody)

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