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Fuel cells can be a catalyst powering state's economy

Pat Valente, executive director of The Ohio Fuel Cell Coalition (OFCC).
Pat Valente, executive director of The Ohio Fuel Cell Coalition (OFCC). - Photo Ben French
Pat Valente has been executive director of The Ohio Fuel Cell Coalition (OFCC) since 2008. His organization supports the growth of the fuel cell industry in Ohio, a continuing statewide evolution that has been keeping Valente very busy over the last several years.

"Sometimes it gets a little crazy," says the OFCC executive director.

Maybe so, but it's the "good" kind of crazy. Valente is among a burgeoning contingent of Ohio business and civic leaders who believe fuel cell technology can power the Buckeye State's economy for decades.

Support has come in large part through Ohio Third Frontier, a technology-based economic development initiative committed to create new products, companies, industries and jobs. As a result, Ohio has become home to an increasing number of companies making room for themselves in the fuel cell space. The state is also a launching pad for a rising amount of fuel cell patents. From 1997-2007, Ohio witnessed a 1,200-percent leap in the number of patents granted within the space.

"Patents are usually a lead indicator of growth," say Valente. "That number is impressive."

Twice in the last five years, Ohio has been named by Fuel Cells 2000 as a top-five leader nationwide for fuel cell manufacturing, joining such states as California and New York.  The state will likely continue to thrive in the market as the nation keeps searching for a clean energy source that depends less on fossil fuels and more on advanced and alternative energy technologies.

Fuel cells, which use chemical reactions to generate electricity, provide a combustion-free alternative without harmful emissions. In essence, a fuel cell converts the chemicals hydrogen and oxygen into water, and in the process it produces electricity.

The OFCC supports between 70-75 Ohio companies now working in the lucrative fuel cell corridor. Some started life in the aerospace or automotive sector and have diversified into fuel cells. Other are becoming part of the industry supply chain, creating valves, gaskets and other parts that go into a fuel cell's guts.

As demand grows, so do the possibilities. Some cell phone companies now use fuel cells to provide back-up power. There are also industrial fork lifts that run on fuel cells rather than batteries or combustion engines.

"That's the beauty of the space," says Valente.

One local example of a manufacturer now on the cutting edge of fuel cells after a number of successful decades in an "old" economy industry is American Trim. The company was founded in 1951, specializing in the forming, decorating, and coating of metal "touch points" for the automotive and appliance world. If you own a car or a refrigerator, it's likely you've laid hands on one of the Lima-based concern's products.

In 2009, American Trim received a Third Frontier grant to produce high-tech bipolar plates that are part of fuel cell construction. The future may find American Trim not just making plates, but entire sub-assemblies for fuel cells that could be integrated into cars, notes Steven Hatkevich, director of research and development. Asian automakers Honda, Hyundai and Toyota recently announced they are  preparing to mass-produce fuel-cell driven vehicles that could be on showroom floors by 2015.

"In ten years you'll see fuel cells replacing the traditional engine," says Hatkevich. "We are part of an evolution of value-add manufacturing. What excites us most about this technology is what we don't even see yet. There are some great advances still to come."

The economic benefits for this technology are potentially massive, says Mark Fleiner, chief executive officer of LG Fuel Cell Systems, Inc. Last summer, Korean industrial and electronic conglomerate LG invested $45 million in Rolls-Royce Fuel Cell Systems and consolidated its fuel cell research and development activities at the company's location at Stark State College of Technology in North Canton.

The new company continues to develop large fuel cells for industrial, commercial and utility use. The plan has been to connect the fuel cells to natural gas pipelines.

"Think about the size of the power-generating industry," says Fleiner. "It's a $400 to $500 billion industry globally. The prize is very big, but the technology is challenging."

The historical synopsis for fuel cells was that they were always five years away. That timetable has moved forward, and Ohio is positioned to build a high-efficiency, environmentally friendly industry around the possibilities that fuel cells represent, Fleiner says.

"There are a number of technologies (rubber, polymers) incubated in Ohio that people may not appreciate," says the company CEO. "Fuel cells offer potential for a new industry around manufacturing, servicing and developing a future power-generating technology."

Lockheed Martin
is working to make fuel cell generators (or "gensets")  rugged enough for military applications. The Akron company is partnered in this effort with Cleveland's Technology Management Inc.(TMI), a provider of fuel cell systems.

In 2011, the companies operated a fuel-cell generator for 1,000 hours using the military's standard JP-8 fuel. This milestone paved the way to build fuel-cell generators that create an efficient, safe and affordable method to convert expensive fuel into electricity, says Steve Sinsabaugh, a fellow with Lockheed Martin.

Cost savings is one thing, but the fuel cell system can also save lives. "Less fuel (used) means fewer convoys on the road and fewer attacks," Sinsabaugh says.

The results might be seen oversees, but the project  is "very Ohio-centric," adds the company rep. Along with TMI, Lockheed Martin has collaborated on the gensets with the fuel cell program at Stark State College.

Third Frontier investments "have created a significant fuel cell supply chain in Ohio," says Sinsabaugh. "Besides TMI, we have four or five other suppliers in-state. They are the best-of-breed for these technologies."

Ohio’s fuel cell industry will continue to thrive with support from policy-makers like U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), who recently called for continued investment in Ohio’s emerging clean energy sector, says Valente of OFCC.

There are other signs of good works happening throughout the state, including The Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority teaming with NASA Glenn Research Center on a non-polluting hydrogen-fueled bus. Then there's Ohio-based forklift manufacturer Crown Equipment, which by end of 2012 was set have 1,500 fuel cell powered lift trucks in the market. Not to be outdone is Parker Hannifin Corp., a Mayfield Heights-based maker of motion and control equipment. Last month, the company signed an agreement with Watt Fuel Cell Corp. of Port Washington, N.Y., to build fuel cells for use in the recreational vehicle, marine, trucking and residential markets.

"As the industry grows so will the supply chain," says Valente. "The future looks bright, but we need to stay the course."

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