A new hydrogen fuel cell technology takes off at GIS

What you need to know:

  • Hydrogen for drones: An innovative new hydrogen-powered propulsion system from Falcon Fuel Cells Inc. could be a game-changer for the drone market.
  • Based on an RIT patent: The Rochester startup is commercializing a technology based on an original patent developed through research at RIT’s Golisano Institute for Sustainability. It uses hydrogen “cracked” from energy-dense liquid fuel sources to power fixed-wing and quad-copter drones that can fly longer than predominant battery-run versions.
  • Fuel-flexible: Falcon’s novel fuel cell technology can operate on various feedstocks to make hydrogen, which allows them to run on abundant and cheap hydrocarbon fuels today while offering a path to sustainable solutions in the future.
  • Big sustainability potential: Falcon’s fuel cell may one day use fuel from organic waste like food or yard clippings. Coupled with a biochar kiln, the technology will generate renewable energy using hydrogen-rich “syngas” while capturing and storing carbon.
  • A new way to use hydrogen: Falcon’s novel fuel cell system shows the role hydrogen can play in a clean-energy economy, filling critical gaps in electrification by tackling hard-to-decarbonize sectors.

Early last September, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) made its first move to allow unmanned commercial aircraft—drones—to fly beyond the sight of their operators. The agency will begin issuing licenses to companies, allowing both remote-controlled and autonomous drones to go longer distances than ever before without having staff on the ground every few miles to ensure an obstacle-free flight path.

For companies like Amazon, AT&T, and Alphabet, this change marks an important milestone in mainstreaming commercial drone delivery. Already, 86 percent of the products Amazon delivers weigh five pounds or less—a range that is perfect for smaller, lightweight drones.

The FAA reports that there are currently more than 863,000 drones registered in the United States. Almost 60 percent of those are for recreational purposes like photography. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are also increasingly common in the military, where they are used to carry out surveillance and tactical activities, as is the case in the conflict following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The next generation of pilot-less devices taking to the air will likely need to fly for longer and carry more weight. Today, most drones designed for long-range flights and carrying big payloads are powered by batteries or combustion engines running on fossil fuels. But a startup from Rochester, New York—Falcon Fuel Cells Inc. (Falcon)—is challenging that status quo with a new propulsion technology for piloted and autonomous drones that promises longer flights, heavier lifts, and lower cost.

Quick primer: Hydrogen fuel cells:

In a nutshell, a fuel cell generates electricity by creating hydrogen ions. A hydrogen atom’s electrons—negatively charged—cannot pass through the surface of a component known as the proton exchange membrane (PEM) and so they have to take another route. In this way, their path is exploited to create an electric current that can be used to power a machine, lighting, or another application. At the end of the system, the hydrogen combines with oxygen, making water the only by-product. 

a diagram showing how a hydrogen fuel cell conducts electricity

Two of the most common hydrogen energy technologies in use are the low-temperature PEM (LT-PEM) fuel cell and the solid-oxide fuel cell (SOFC). LT-PEMs run at about 80 degrees Celsius (°C), while SOFCs can reach up to 1,000°C. Falcon’s innovation does not rely on either of these; its fuel cell system features a high-temperature PEM (HT-PEM), a more recent—and less popular—fuel cell technology that runs at a temperature range of 120–200°C.

Diagram showing the difference between a low-temp polymer-exchange membrane (PEM), a high-temp PEM, and a solid-oxide fuel cell in terms of operating temperature.
A panaromic photo of a scientific laboratory

The fuel cell laboratory at RIT's Golisano Institute for Sustainability (GIS) (Photo credit: Mia Medina Mueller) 

Hydrogen for the home?

A veteran of the fuel cell industry, Trabold worked at GM’s former hydrogen fuel-cell research and development facility in Honeoye Falls, New York, before arriving at GIS in 2009. Throughout, he has been in search of the best-fit opportunities for hydrogen in the shift to a clean energy economy. At GIS, he worked with Mark Walluk, a fuel cell engineer, to spearhead the institute’s fuel cell research activities. Together, they established an advanced testbed and experimental facility at GIS dedicated to fuel cell development.

In 2012, Trabold and Walluk began considering a number of advantages that HT-PEM offers over other fuel cell designs: One, HT-PEMs can operate using less pure hydrogen feeds, which allows for a much wider range of fuel sources. This means common fuels (like methanol, ethanol, or propane) can be reformed—when the molecular bonds of gases are “cracked”—to release hydrogen within the system. Two, a HT-PEM system is an overall simpler design than a standard LT-PEM, not needing subsystems for water management or hydrogen purification. Three, an HT-PEM solution could be ideal for residential purposes, since most hydrogen fuel cell systems currently on the market are designed to serve either low- or high-power applications. Most home applications fall within a power voltage ranging from as low as 20 Watts (W) up to 100 kilowatts (kW). 

This foundational research was funded through the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s (NIST) Measurement Science and Engineering Research Grants Program across three projects. Each explored critical issues concerning the use of fuel cells in the residential context, such as fuel reforming and design challenges. It was through this work that the concept for Falcon’s system was first developed in a 2016 doctoral dissertation project by one of Trabold’s students.

“It’s both quiet and capable of long flight durations unlike battery and internal combustion engine technology [...].”

“The proposed design offered significant advantages over current UAV propulsion technologies,” the study’s author noted. “It’s both quiet and capable of long flight durations unlike battery and internal combustion engine technology presently used that suffer from either low specific energy or high noise level.”  

The GIS researchers tested a fuel cell system that coupled an HT-PEM with a propane reformer (technically, a catalytic partial oxidation reactor). In so doing, they discovered a cost-effective solution for leveraging the benefits of a fuel cell and propane—an energy-dense, widely available, and inexpensive fuel—for drone flight. The experimental system produced a net power of 205 W, had a total mass of just over 2 kilograms, and could achieve a potential run-time of 8 hours on a single fueling.  

“Since it relies on an HT-PEM,” Trabold explained. “It doesn’t require ultra-pure hydrogen like a traditional LT-PEM or the complexity and material cost of an SOFC.”   

Falcon’s fuel cell is unlike traditional hydrogen fuel calls because it can be powered using consumer-grade propane (think of outdoor grills or camping stoves). LT-PEM systems used in applications like hydrogen cars, for instance, require pure hydrogen—often with a purity of 99.999 percent. Attaining elemental hydrogen is expensive; the atom rarely is found “on its own” on Earth and is often paired with other elements in molecules like water, ammonia, or methane. The two most common methods for obtaining pure hydrogen are steam-methane reforming and electrolysis. The former is an energy-intensive industrial process usually carried out in a petroleum refinery. The latter uses electricity to split water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen; it is not frequently done at scale. 

“It provides a bridge to future systems that will be powered by pure hydrogen.”

“We chose propane because of its energy density and affordability, and because it’s well known among the public,” Walluk pointed out. “It provides a bridge to future systems that will be powered by pure hydrogen.”

A prototype of an integrated fuel cell sits on a lab bench.

A prototype assembly of Falcon's novel integrated fuel cell system (Photo credit: Mia Medina Mueller) 

Ready for take off

Falcon formally “hatched” when the 2020 patent for the HT-PEM fuel system was licensed to the company’s founders by RIT that same year. Since then, the startup has worked closely with different industry programs within GIS to develop a final design that is ready for production. A fully manufacturable prototype is still a long way off, but the company is working at a breakneck speed to get there.

In 2021, Falcon won a Phase II Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) awards from the U.S. Air Force. With this funding, GIS engineers worked with Falcon’s team to develop a functional prototype of its fuel cell system. The project applied the technology specifically to the specifications and needs of commercial drones and military UAVs. A compact version of the system was assembled and tested in GIS’s fuel cell laboratory.

That same year, Falcon and GIS also received funding from FuzeHub, a manufacturing extension partnership in New York State, to determine a manufacturing process for the production of membrane electrode assemblies (MEAs), the core component of HT-PEM fuel cells. The objective of the project was to identify the equipment and methodologies that a high-volume manufacturing environment would require.

“For small companies it is often difficult to find funding sources that support the transition of university know-how into manufacturing processes.”

“For small companies it is often difficult to find funding sources that support the transition of university know-how into manufacturing processes," noted Walluk about the collaboration. "The funding from FuzeHub allowed GIS to fully assist Falcon in development of the manufacturing processes needed to scale production.”

Since its launch, Falcon has also worked closely with GIS engineers through the Center of Excellence in Advanced and Sustainable Manufacturing (COE-ASM), a New York State-funded technical assistance program led by GIS. COE-ASM supported much of Trabold and Walluk’s early fuel cell research and continues to assist them with fine-tuning Falcon’s system for commercialization.

In 2022, the Falcon and GIS teams partnered under a COE-ASM project to lightweight and improve the system to continue the progress achieved through the Air Force SBIR award. Several features of the unit’s reformer subsystem were evaluated to make it more compact and thermally integrated. Additionally, alternative, lighter materials—such as titanium—were investigated to replace the original graphite used in the bi-polar plates that are “stacked” on either side of the MEA that makes up the heart of a PEM.

A composite image including three engineers in a lab setting

Three members of the team behind Falcon Fuel Cell (pictured left to right): Thomas Trabold, Mark Walluk, and Jared Leader (Photo credit: Mia Medina Mueller) 

Expanding horizons

As Falcon nears commercialization of its drone application, the startup continues to think big. Its automated aviation solution is just one way it sees its novel fuel cell offering a clean-energy alternative to battery power for hard-to-decarbonize sectors.

A recent award from the National Science Foundation (NSF)—SBIR Program Phase I: NSF 23-515—will fund research to evaluate how Falcon’s HT-PEM reacts when reformed ammonia is used to fuel it. Ammonia might not seem immediately relevant to clean energy, but it is. An ammonia molecule has three hydrogen atoms to every nitrogen atom and contains no carbon.

“Ammonia is an exceptional carrier of hydrogen, especially as nitrogen is inert—it is benign—when it enters a fuel cell,” explained Jared Leader, Falcon’s first employee. “The bad news is that ammonia is highly caustic and corrosive; it can quickly destroy a conventional LT-PEM if even a small amount enters the system.”

Little is currently known about how an HT-PEM system would tolerate reformed ammonia. Researchers from GIS will work with Falcon to investigate the effects of reformed ammonia on Falcon’s system. The results of the experiments will not only advance Falcon’s product, but contribute important data to efforts to validate where and how HT-PEM fuel cells can be used to decarbonize the economy.

The research is part of Trabold and the Falcon team’s broader ambition to create a fuel cell that can use hydrogen derived from currently unconventional sources. This includes “syngas,” which is a category of gases that are extracted from biomass (e.g., wasted food or yard refuse) through a process called gasification. Heat, steam, and oxygen are carefully controlled to obtain a mixture of gases that can then be easily reformed to produce a hydrogen-rich fuel supply. Conventional LT-PEMs cannot handle this fuel because it’s not pure hydrogen, but a HT-PEM fuel cell can.

For Falcon, this presents a unique opportunity for clean energy and carbon sequestration within the agricultural sector. Design is underway for a product application that looks to pair Falcon’s fuel cell with a biochar kiln. By creating biochar, the kiln would capture and sequester greenhouse gases typically released as farm waste like corn stoker (stalks leftover after harvest) decompose. Syngas produced during the biochar process—known as pyrolysis—would feed into a Falcon fuel cell system to power the farm.

“The result could cut the carbon footprint of a farm by 30 percent [...].”

“The result could cut the carbon footprint of a farm by 30 percent while generating enough power to offset up to half of its electricity demand,” said Leader. He contributed to the foundational research that validated the original fuel cell design as part of his doctoral studies at GIS under Trabold, which he completed in 2022.

On the wings of change

Hydrogen energy is receiving fresh attention because of emerging methods for extracting the plentiful element using clean energy rather than fossil fuels, the conventional approach. The promise of green hydrogen is that it is clean from start to finish: Hydrogen is attained using carbon-free energy and then it can go into a fuel cell to produce electricity—with water the only by-product—or it can be burned directly without emitting greenhouse gases.

New York State is home to a fast-growing hydrogen ecosystem spanning from innovational startups to well-established market leaders, like PlugPower Inc. (Plug). Based near Albany, Plug opened a 35,000-square-foot facility in Rochester in 2019 to manufacture the membranes, catalysts, and electrodes for their fuel cells. The expansion followed the 2018 acquisition of the Rochester-based startup American Fuel Cell, which also worked with GIS to develop and ultimately commercialize a novel fuel cell component.  

In 2022, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) launched a program to establish innovation and manufacturing hubs across the United States to accelerate the adoption of hydrogen energy. The new Regional Clean Hydrogen Hubs—which will number between six and ten “H2Hubs”—will be designed to produce, process, deliver, store, and recover hydrogen fuel. They will also drive innovation for the use of hydrogen to decarbonize industry, especially in carbon-intensive sectors like heavy-duty machinery, steel production, and long-haul trucking and shipping. Currently, the DOE has issued a funding notice and multiple bids are being developed by stakeholders representing different U.S. regions, such as the Northeast, Midwest, and Northwest. The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) is leading the Northeast effort along with seven other states and more than 100 partner organizations, including RIT.

“Hydrogen will play an increasingly significant role in all sectors of the future low-carbon economy, and GIS and Falcon are well positioned to help facilitate this transition,” Trabold observed.


Sustainability in Practice


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About the authors

Golisano Institute for Sustainability (GIS) is a global leader in sustainability education and research. Drawing upon the skills of more than 100 full-time engineers, technicians, research faculty, and sponsored students, it operates six dynamic research centers and over 84,000 square feet of industrial infrastructure for sustainability modeling, testing, and prototyping. Graduate-level degree programs are also offered that convey the institute's knowledge to the next generation of industry professionals.

Senior Writer and Content Strategist

Golisano Institute for Sustainability 
Rochester Institute of Technology 

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