Data Centers

GE's new fuel-cell technology is a game changer

GE's new fuel-cell design reportedly increases power-generation efficiency and drives down costs. Get more details about this materials breakthrough.


When it comes to generating electricity, fuel-cell technology has always been of interest to scientists and to engineers. One reason has been the fuel cell's power-generation efficiency. There's only one more efficient method of generating electricity, and it requires large quantities of water (Figure A).

Figure A


In this video, Dr. Kristen Brosnan, Materials Scientist in the Ceramic Structures and Processing Laboratory at General Electric Global Research, explains how fuel cells are able to obtain such high efficiency. She says, "Most conventional power-generation methods convert a chemical energy into heat and mechanical work, then into electrical energy. Fuel cells offer the ability to convert chemical energy directly into electrical energy with a very low environmental impact."

One type of fuel cell is of special interest

Fuel-cell technology shows great promise and is already powering portions of or entire data centers, as I reported in this TechRepublic article. The Solid Oxide Fuel Cell (SOFC) is of special interest to researchers.

SOFCs (Figure B) generate electricity by feeding hydrogen-rich fuel, heated to 1,500 degrees F, through channels in the anode. Hot air, also 1,500 degrees F, travels over the cathode. The electrolyte enables an electrochemical reaction between the hydrogen in the fuel and the oxygen in the air to generate electricity. The reaction also creates byproducts, including water, heat, and syngas (synthetic gas containing hydrogen).

Figure B

Photo of an SOFC cross-section on the right and on the left a schematic showing how the system works.

However, the technology is expensive, forcing data-center managers to look at other power-generation methods in order to get a decent return on investment. The high cost of SOFC technology results from needing platinum and rare-earth elements to create the reaction.

Materials breakthrough

A recent press release by GE Global Research created quite a stir by proclaiming their researchers figured out how to replace the platinum and rare-earth elements with stainless steel, which is more abundant and much cheaper (Figure C).

Figure C

 Image: GE Global Research

The GE scientists and engineers also met a critical design requirement: 40,000 hour life span. In order to get that kind of life, Brosnan used her expertise in ceramic coatings to adapt GE's ceramic additive spray technology (originally developed to coat jet-engine parts) to protect the fuel-cell's components.

How efficient is GE's SOFC?

GE tested its fuel cell design, and it generates power at 65% efficiency, which is remarkable considering the efficiencies of the methods now producing most of the world's electricity. The 65% is due in part to making use of one of the fuel cell's byproducts -- syngas, which has enough potential energy to power another GE power-producing technology called Jenbacher Engine.

In addition, the GE research team feels there is more efficiency to be gained (predictions max out at 95%) when a process to capture the waste heat is added to the fuel-cell assembly. As built, the GE fuel cell can generate between 1 and 10 megawatts of power.

Last thought

Brosnan reminded all of us why this is important, "There needs to be a paradigm shift in how we all think about using energy. Fuel cells may not be the answer for everything, but it is one of the answers."

If major enterprises like Apple and eBay already consider fuel cells a viable alternative to more typical power-generation methods, imagine what it will be like once GE's fuel-cell technology becomes available.

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Flow diagram is awesome.

Its great to mention here that electrolyte enables an electrochemical reaction between the hydrogen in the fuel and the oxygen in the air to generate electricity.


" In addition, the GE research team feels there is more efficiency to be gained (predictions max out at 95%) when a process to capture the waste heat is added to the fuel-cell assembly. "

Could Stirling Engines be used to harness the waste heat?  I keep wondering about how much heat we try and get rid of all the time and whether we could be harnessing more of this 'waste heat' with Stirling Engines. Cars? Data Centres? Industrial settings?


...btw C02 and H2O is the same output you get from a properly scrubbed coal fired power plant. Why isn't EPA regulating fuel cell technology into bankruptcy? It'd be instructive to know the relative CO2 production from a fuel cell per unit, say kWhr, compared to a good old fashioned smoke stack.

Any time there's a "wash," I support the option that puts the most people to productive use.

I know I'm a 'one note Johnny' on the subject, but isn't the objective of society that as many members thereof are productive, rather than simply "maximizing efficiency," which could easily be interpreted to fulfill a eugenicist's dreams of doing away with roughly 80% of the earth's population?

Put another way; are we all striving to obviate ourselves?


I wonder if GE actually invented the spray-on ceramic coating, or licensed it from Pratt and Whitney, a competitor in the aircraft engine business. P&W came up with this sometime in the late 90's. ...or maybe it's a enough of a different technique that it warranted a patent of it's own?

Either way, it came along too late to save the aviation department I used to run. Atmospheric sulphur was eating our turbine blades, cutting the lifespan of the blades in less than half of their "rated" lifespan. 

It ended up one time that the cost of replacing them exceeded the total value of the aircraft. The company decided to ditch the plane rather than go way "upside down" on the value of the thing.

It happened that our specific model of engine was far more susceptible to "sulphidation" than literally any other model. It was actually designed for marine use, how it got past the FAA to wind up on a plane is a mystery to me. It was a disastrously expensive deployment of a turbine engine.

I wrote a paper on it, including all the temperature-sensitive chemistry going on in these engines, worthy of a master's degree. (I was trying to keep my job) P&W was impressed, but they still didn't cut me any slack on the cost of a blade replacement.

Instead I got lunch with some vice president in charge of engineering who asked me to apply for a job with P&W, and to kindly NOT speak of this problem to any others with the same model of engine.

They told me I should do a "sulphidation wash" after each flight. Right... factor in the cost of 3 hours of labour and some very expensive soap... every day  ...into your hourly operating costs.

This problem was later fixed with said ceramic spray coating. Seems like a no-brainer in retrospect.

These fuel cells fascinate me. It's almost like you're getting 'something for nothing.'


Just think of the possibilities when this is coupled with GE's own Turbo Encabulator

Wallace Bob
Wallace Bob

Capacity is only one of the important variables.  Fuel cells have a fuel cost.  Some of the technologies listed at the top have zero fuel costs.

Some numbers for capital expense would be interesting.  Both for the fuel cell and the Jenbacher engine needed to reach 65% efficiency.

And some O&M prices would also be interesting.  This approach is more than simply a fuel cell.

NickNielsen moderator

Could this be our Shipstone?

Michael Kassner
Michael Kassner


Great comments, Pgit

As for the technology, GE said it was theirs, but I did not second source that. All in all, it is amazing. In particular the efficiency. 

Michael Kassner
Michael Kassner


I was not familiar with the Jenbacher engine, but it actually is an impressive device. It is making use of landfill biomass in several countries throughout the world. 

Michael Kassner
Michael Kassner

@Wallace Bob

Good points, but not every location has access to water. And as Brosan said it is not the entire answer. I keep thinking that I have both natural gas and electricity at my house. It would be great to just have the natural gas come in and a fuel cell to power the house, 

Michael Kassner
Michael Kassner


Interesting, Nick. I have read about Shipstone, but do not understand it that well. I am just encouraged that large industry leaders are starting to look at alternatives seriously, and I believe it is all because of data centers. 

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