SBU nanotech fuels upstate collaboration

Ron Tabbitas: Advanced chemistry, simple idea.

A collaboration between a Long Island tech spinoff and an upstate manufacturer could speed a Stony Brook University-born nanotechnology to market – and set the fuel-cell industry on its ear.

MEAn Technologies, a soon-to-officially-launch spinoff of Selden business-development services provider Dynamic Supplier Alignment, is teaming up with Rochester-based American Fuel Cell on an application for funds through a newly issued New York State Energy Research and Development Authority PON – a Program Opportunity Notice offering stipends for “inspired, innovative and disruptive thinking about technologies and business models that will transform New York State’s energy landscape,” according to NYSERDA.

The plan: To combine MEAn Technologies’ proprietary gold-nanoparticle coating technology, which the pre-startup licensed from SBU researchers, with American Fuel Cell’s specially designed Membrane Electrode Assemblies.

The chemistry is super-advanced, but the upshot, according to Dynamic Supplier Alignment founder and President Ron Tabbitas, is fairly simple: The proprietary SBU technology can boost fuel-cell output by 40 percent while realizing significant cost-per-kilowatt savings, and an ultra-thin layer of the specialized gold nanoparticles will allow American Fuel Cell’s membrane assemblies to perform at a higher power density, greatly improving fuel cell efficiency.

Dan O'Connell: Potent partners.

Dan O’Connell: Potent partners.

Tabbitas and American Fuel Cell CEO Daniel O’Connell have met before – the two have been comparing thinks on fuel-cell technology since last year – and both noted that NYSERDA urged the two companies to work together on a joint application for the new Advanced Clean Energy PON, which will ultimately dole out about $3 million.

“NYSERDA actually said, ‘Why don’t you think about forming a partnership with these guys upstate?’” Tabbitas noted. “We thought, ‘Great, we were just up there last year.’

“We’re definitely stronger together than we are individually,” he added.

O’Connell, a former director of General Motors’ Rochester-based fuel-cell program, agreed that the collaboration “has the ability to move us a significant step forward.”

“We think the combination of their particular technology with our ability to create Membrane Electrode Assemblies could produce a high-performing, low-cost membrane for multiple fuel-cell applications,” O’Connell told Innovate LI. “This could really energize the fuel-cell industry.”

When GM relocated its fuel-cell program from Rochester to Michigan in 2012, neither O’Connell nor Chief Engineer David Wetter wanted to move. So the two stayed behind and officially launched American Fuel Cell in 2014, continuing the membrane-assembly work they’d started at GM.

O’Connell acknowledged that he and his new Long Island partners have crossed paths before and agreed that NYSERDA was very encouraging about the notion of a tag-team PON application.

“They suggested we find a way to work with these guys and marry our technologies together,” O’Connell noted. “And they like the idea of promoting this as a sort of New York Membrane Electrode Assembly center, utilizing the state’s help to move the technology forward.”

While NYSERDA will be accepting applications for the Advanced Clean Energy PON well into 2018, the new partners are wasting no time preparing their bid. Dynamic Supplier Alignment and American Fuel Cell have already entered into a confidentiality agreement, Tabbitas said, and will immediately turn their mutual attention to preparing their NYSERDA proposal.

“The money will run out as they go,” he noted. “The longer we wait, the less opportunity there is for funding.”

Dynamic Supplier Alignment and its embryonic MEAn Technologies are also close to reaching the “final milestones” qualifying them for tranche payments through PowerBridgeNY, a NYSERDA effort to create a more robust statewide energy system by leveraging new technological initiatives.

A joint effort of two clean energy proof-of-concept centers funded by $5 million NYSERDA grants, including a virtual Columba University center that incorporates SBU and Brookhaven National Laboratory, PowerBridgeNY is primarily interested in supporting technologies emerging from institutional research – music to the ears of the powers behind MEAn Technologies.

Combined with the PowerBridgeNY payment, money from the state’s energy-development PON could see the gold-nanoparticle technology incorporated into large-scale manufacturing efforts within 24 months, according to Tabbitas.

Nothing will happen in the fuel cell industry without the blessing of the biggest players – “Manufacturers aren’t going to just take your new technology and throw it into the field without six to eight months of quality testing first,” Tabbitas noted – but the new collaboration and multiple funding opportunities are “extremely positive” developments for MEAn Technologies, according to the entrepeneur.

“There’s no question that with the funding coming out of NYSERDA, we can take this product over the goal line and get it into the marketplace very quickly, at a high volume,” Tabbitas said. “With American Fuel Cell’s proprietary MEA technology and the gold-nanoparticle coating, we could be looking at large-scale manufacturing probably within two years.”


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