Bing Energy — founded on the work of FSU researchers — offers a tantalizing glimpse into a hydrogen-powered future.
In the rear parking lot of Bing’s headquarters, Minardi shows visitors a green EnerFuel-labeled car that gets its primary power from batteries but is equipped with a Bing fuel cell range extender that can extend an electric vehicle’s range from 30 miles to 150 miles.
Minardi says the company plans to keep the EnerFuel brand and target fleet operations involving buses and package delivery companies — vehicles that can be recharged and refilled every night.
In time, use of hydrogen will grow, Minardi says. Natural gas filling stations, which are popping up as vast reservoirs of natural gas are unlocked in the United States, can easily be retrofitted to add a hydrogen fuel pump.
Meanwhile, Bing plans to earn revenue by selling its Buckypaper fuel cells — known as “membrane electrode assemblies” — to telecommunications companies in China for use as backup power generators for cell phone towers. Most of the current towers — “there are 1.3 million cell towers in China,” Minardi says — rely on inefficient, polluting backup generators that use diesel or lead acid batteries. Bing’s fuel cells are lighter and more compact than the batteries, which have to be replaced at least once every five years, or the diesel generators, which have to be run once a week for an hour and drained every six months.
“A 500-pound fuel cell makes no vibrations, no noise, and you have to turn it on and off maybe once or twice a month,” Minardi says. Bing’s fuel cells cost around $10,000, which Minardi says makes them competitive with the existing backup systems.
Most of Bing’s manufacturing activity is in China, which gave the company a major incentive deal to locate a manufacturing plant in Rugao, a city of 1.4 million people 125 miles northwest of Shanghai. In exchange for a 40% stake in Bing’s Chinese subsidiary, the Chinese government gave Bing a 110,000-sq.-ft. three-story manufacturing facility, a 30,000-sq.-ft. dorm for employees and an investment of $7.5 million over five years. The money was earmarked to pay for equipment and other capital investments.
In Florida, Bing produces the “core intellectual property,” including the Buckypaper and then ships incomplete fuel cells to China to be assembled. The completed fuel cell, or membrane electrode assembly, is then sold to end-users.
Minardi says a big telecommunications company in the U.S. is testing Bing Energy’s fuel cells as backup power generators, but the Chinese market remains more promising than the American market for the moment. “China is growing fast,” he says. “They need cell phones. They need power, but they can’t run diesel generators. They need cleaner power. In the U.S., it’s less mission-critical because we have a very stable power grid, and we don’t have the pollution.”
Navigant Research predicts the stationary fuel cell market will grow from $1.7 billion in 2013 to $9 billion by 2022, and Minardi says Bing intends to compete in the U.S. as well — and manufacture fuel cells domestically. “The way we are set up is as the market in the U.S. starts to get going, we will build it right here in Tallahassee,” Minardi says.
By the end of 2015 he predicts Bing will be “cash flow and profit positive.”
Meanwhile, Minardi says he’s optimistic that the most profitable way for Bing to tap into the automotive industry is by focusing on fuel cells as range extenders. Toyota is looking at incorporating fuel cells into its electric cars to create a new kind of hybrid, Minardi says. “We’re working on an order for range extenders right now,” Minardi says.
Ultimately, he says, the fuel cells’ promise for widespread automotive use endures: The only pollution they generate “is warm water.”