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Upstate company cutting costs for global fuel cell production

The state’s energy research and development authority (NYSERDA) has awarded $200,000 to upstate fuel cell company Solid Cell.

The funding is earmarked for commercialization of the company’s unique interconnect material, an important mechanical part of fuel cell systems. The product could cut costs for fuel cell manufacturers around the world.

Interconnects are the components that connect the layers of a solid oxide fuel cell, enabling it to convert fuel to energy through a reaction between oxygen and fuels like hydrogen or natural gas.

Solid Cell CEO Arkady Malakhov says interconnects can be tricky because of the environment they’re exposed to.

“The problem with the interconnect is that it’s the one component that’s exposed to both oxygen and fuel at very high temperature and it’s very difficult to find a material that behaves well in both,” Malakhov says.

He says traditional interconnects are made from metal, but they have to be coated with expensive protective layers to stop them from breaking down at high temperatures.

“Many different coatings and mechanisms that prevent this degradation have been worked on over the years, but all of them are either ineffective or expensive or they reduce the overall performance of the fuel cell.”

Solid Cell’s unique material is a hybrid that appears to solve this problem.

“What we’ve done is develop a unique material called a cermet which is a combination of a metal and a ceramic.”

Malakhov says Solid Cell developed this product in conjunction with local companies in Rochester, and the help of Alfred University.

“Our material shares the properties of metals and ceramics. So it has electrical conductivity like a metal interconnect, but it also has the resistance to corrosion and other high temperature destructive phenomena in a fuel cell similar to that of a ceramic.”

Malakhov says using cermet cuts the cost of making interconnects by eliminating the need for protective coating, and that will extend the life of a fuel cell unit.

“What we’re enabling is the decrease in operating cost by increasing the lifetime. So we’re actually both lowering the capital cost of a fuel cell but also increasing the lifetime or the ability to amortize that capital cost over time.”

He says fuel cells are already in use, and they have the ability to play a big role in changing New York’s energy landscape.

“If we think about what a fuel cell is, it’s really an alternative process to how we produce energy from fuel.”

Malakhov says when you look at the energy plan for the state, fuel cells solve some of the big questions.

“Two of the main issues are how do we produce energy more efficiently, and how do we put fewer pollutants into the atmosphere. And fuel cells address both of those simultaneously.”

He says fuel cells employ a more efficient technique than is currently used to create energy, using less fuel and producing fewer emissions.

Fuel cell technology has been around since the mid-19th century but the technology was only commercialized about 60 years ago.

This is the fourth grant Solid Cell has received from NYSERDA in the past three years. The first grant for $250,000 was awarded in 2010 to help the company set up a manufacturing facility in upstate New York. A year later the company received $200,000 to help it develop the hybrid interconnect technology. Additionally, in 2012 Solid Cell was awarded more than $60,000 for business development.

In a statement, NYSERDA president and CEO Frank Murray said investing in solid cell technology will help to grow the state’s clean-energy sector.

“Fuel cells present a promising technology that can create clean energy while reducing demand on the electric grid -- a technology that can help meet Governor Cuomo's goals of making the state's energy grid more resilient and efficient.” “By helping Solid Cell bring its innovative product to market, we are promoting a technology that will not only benefit the environment but will stimulate the state's clean-energy economy.”

WXXI/Finger Lakes Reporter for the Innovation Trail
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