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Top area leaders huddle to spark fuel-cell mission

Rochester Business Journal
August 26, 2005
A push to get the region's key players united behind fuel-cell technology-what some see as vital to the area's future economic health-gained momentum this month as some 35 top business leaders, elected officials and economic developers met at General Motors Corp.'s Fuel Cell Activities Center in Honeoye Falls.

The private meeting provided area leaders with information on GM's progress on fuel cells locally and discussed the possibility of the region becoming a hub for the technology, said Mat-thew Fronk, chief engineer at the facility.

It also gave the private sector information on how it can help back the effort, attendees said.

GM's Honeoye Falls research and development facility has been working on the technology since 1999. It is one of four such facilities in the world. Some 300 staffers work at the local site.

Fuel cells, capable of powering computers, stationary equipment, cars or boats, still are in the R&D stage here, Fronk said, but with the support of local universities and businesses, the technology could be widely used in vehicles as early as 2010.

"Between 2010 and 2013 there will be commercial vehicles out there (powered by fuel cells)," Fronk said.

Several members of the Rump Group, an association of top local business leaders seeking to improve the Rochester-area economy, attended. Among them were Wegmans Food Markets Inc. CEO Daniel Wegman, Paychex Inc. president and CEO Jonathan Judge and Bausch & Lomb Inc. chairman and CEO Ronald Zarrella.

"We wanted to reach out and see what we might do to be an asset to (GM)," said John Summers, chairman of the Rump Group.

On the public-sector side, Sen. James Alesi, R-Perinton; Sen. Joseph Robach, R-Greece; Assemblyman Joseph Errigo, R-Conesus; Assemblyman David Koon, D-Perinton; and Monroe County Executive Maggie Brooks also attended.

Pushing fuel-cell technology forward is a priority for elected officials, Brooks said.

"When you're talking about fuel cells, you're talking about good-paying jobs," she said, adding the jobs created by the new technology would help fill the void left by downsizing manufacturers in the area.

Zarrella-the former president of GM North America considered a key player in the region's fuel-cell push because of his previous ties to GM-declined to comment.

Others at the meeting represented Greater Rochester Enterprise Inc., a key supporter of the local initiatives to advance fuel-cell technology. Also in attendance was Rochester Business Alliance Inc. CEO Sandra Parker, another Rump Group member.

The meeting also was called to generate excitement about the technology and see what interest there was in pushing it forward here.

"I think we did have a little bit of interest afterward and we're following up on those contacts," Fronk said.

"All of us left that fuel-cell seminar with greater optimism about the opportunities we have in terms of fuel cells," Brooks said.

Several local businesses have the capabilities of being involved intrinsically in fuel-cell technology, including Rochester's traditional Big Three: Eastman Kodak Co., Xerox Corp. and Bausch & Lomb, Fronk said. Area universities such as Rochester Institute of Technology and the University of Rochester also can offer assistance through their research and training and by providing job candidates.

There is a need for local companies to become participants in the manufacturing and development of technologies related to fuel cells, said Michael Finney, GRE president and CEO.

"It really requires our key business leaders, elected leaders and universities working together to identify the right targets our community should go after," Finney said.

Manufacturers of specialty metals, polymers and other products could help accelerate the commercialization of automotive fuel cells, Finney added. The community also needs a pool of applied research dollars to solve the problems that exist with the development of fuel cells.

GRE completed a study a couple of years ago that strongly suggested Rochester was well-positioned to take advantage of fuel cells, he said, but "we haven't been able to get any traction in the community."

Some problems researchers must overcome for fuel-cell technology to move forward, Fronk said, include enhancing materials inside the fuel cell, creating membranes that are more durable and developing improved catalysts and supports.

"We have to find a way to make the technology practical in a real-world sense," Brooks said. "It has to be ready for a commercial market."

In vehicles, fuel cells act as propulsion systems, replacing a car's engine, transmission and fuel system, including its gas tank. Hydrogen is used to run the cells and the byproducts are water vapor, electricity and heat. There are no harmful emissions from fuel-cell-powered vehicles, Fronk explained.

A fuel cell the size of a notebook piece of paper has the ability to make about 1 horsepower at full power, Fronk said, and by stacking cells in a series, one could have enough power to drive a car.

The meeting at GM's fuel-cell site offered attendees a chance to tour the facility, the Rump Group's Summers said.

"We went there not only to become better educated, but to try to understand how we might be an asset to GM to help them want to make investments (here)," he added. "I think that now that we've started to build a dialogue we will try to listen to what their needs are and what the private sector can do."

GM's local fuel-cell research holds great potential for the future, Summers said. The Rump Group's interest in the technology is to progress economic development in Upstate New York.

GRE, the Rump Group and others at the meeting plan to continue what was started there, Finney said, in terms of seminars, meetings and educational opportunities.

"We got some pretty good feedback as far as the level of interest in our community," he said. "GRE will play a very active role in leading that."

What GM needs is support from the community as it finalizes the technology, Brooks said.

"We can do that by making sure the resources are there," she added. "I absolutely believe as the economy diversifies we need to capitalize on emerging industries. It's top on the list."

To further advance fuel-cell technology, GM, Delphi Corp. and GRE earlier this year united with MTI MicroFuel Cells Inc. of Albany, Plug Power Inc. of Latham and Albany Nano-Tech's Energy and Environmental Technology Application Center to form the New York Fuel Cell Network.

Delphi, which employs some 450 people at its Technical Center in Henrietta, is a major research center focusing on proton exchange membrane and solid-oxide fuel cells.

The fuel-cell network is part of New Energy New York, a consortium of New York energy-related technology organizations that strives to promote energy technology excellence in the state.

"It really started off as an ad hoc group," Fronk said of the fuel-cell network. "Each of us is working on different applications and types of fuel cells but (we) all have overlapping problems to solve."

The network has minimal bureaucracy and, though in its infancy, has shown great progress, he said.

Fronk believes it is possible for the region to become a fuel-cell hub.

"I think Rochester does have the capability because of the businesses here," he said. "It's like the movie, 'Field of Dreams.' If we were to develop a materials infrastructure and we had the best kinds of materials, then many businesses would come."

(vspicer@rbj.net / 585-546-8303)

08/26/05 (C) Rochester Business Journal


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