Fuel Cells Have Been a Long Time Coming. And They're Still Coming

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Jeffrey Immelt, chairman and CEO of General Electric Co. Close

Jeffrey Immelt, chairman and CEO of General Electric Co.

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Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Jeffrey Immelt, chairman and CEO of General Electric Co.

General Electric Chief Executive Officer Jeffrey Immelt said his company has been developing fuel cell power for 30 years.

It’s actually been more than 50. General Electric started designing fuel cells for spaceflight in 1962.

Fuel cell technology is on a slow boil. The idea itself goes back to the middle of the 19th century, and only in the last couple of years have technology and commerce begun to each other in a meaningful way.

The hydrogen-powered cars promised us a decade ago by President George W. Bush and his predecessors are inching closer. But real progress is coming in less-sexy endeavors -- forklifts and back-up power, to name two.

Even as companies are finding some uses for the technology, the U.S. Energy Department is continuing to invest in basic research. The agency plans to award $30 million in research grants for systems designed to power homes and businesses by September, said Cheryl Martin, acting director of the Advance Research Projects Agency -- Energy. She and Immelt spoke at the Bloomberg New Energy Finance conference in New York today.

The hope is that more research will lead to cheaper, more efficient and more dependable power.

“We’re hoping to get some really innovative applications,” Martin said in an interview. “We want to push the boundaries of fuel cell technology to improve grid reliability and resiliency.”

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