Exclusive: Fuel cell firm to build generators in Columbia

Trulite, which builds hydrogen fuel cell generators and hydrogen fuel canisters for commercial uses, is moving its manufacturing and administration to Columbia.

The announcement could mean up to 1,000 private, high-tech jobs over the next few years, company and economic development officials said.

The company could be the first big score for Columbia's and the state's five-year, $41 million push to launch a "knowledge-based" economy in the Midlands.

"They have good things in the works with major companies - legitimate prospects with legitimate companies" to purchase their products, said Neil McLean, president and CEO of EngenuitySC, an agency set up by USC and Columbia to encourage and guide high-tech investment.

Trulite chief executive Ron Seftick told The State the company has orders for "tens of thousands" of its small generators, the prototypes of which were manufactured in California's Silicon Valley.

He said the orders call for "hundreds of thousands" of the hydrogen fuel canisters being manufactured at the Midlands Tech Business Accelerator on Farrow Road near S.C. 277.

The orders, he said, come from "several" Fortune 100 companies, which he would not name.

"That's why we finally had to decide on a place to manufacture them," Seftick said. "This will be a fast buildup. This is not going to be a white elephant."

Seftick, who is moving to Columbia, said many of the jobs would be created by subcontractors who would supply the chemicals, housing and electronics for the generators.

Last year, Trulite chose South Carolina over California, Connecticut, Ohio and North Carolina to begin manufacturing the fuel canisters.

South Carolina won out because state and business officials moved quickly with a proposal when the company expressed interest after visiting a National Hydrogen Association forum in Columbia in 2007.

In its initial move here in 2008, Trulite received $750,000 from state and local governments, and business groups, and also won $96,000 in the Greater Columbia Fuel Cell Challenge. The money was used to build 12 generators and 500 batteries, with some going to the city of Columbia, USC and Fort Jackson for demonstration projects.

To attract Trulite's manufacturing arm, the company received a loan from the S.C. Research Authority, according the authority's chief executive, Bill Mahoney.

Neither Seftick nor Mahoney would disclose the amount of the loan. The SCRA is a self-funding economic development group started by the Legislature.

"It's very similar to other loan packages we've provided to the 38 firms in our portfolio," he said.

The Trulite generators to be produced here can be used inside because they do not give off the noxious emissions of gas models.

The generators can last up to eight hours on two fuel cell batteries and have four outlets to run or charge laptops, radios and cell phones.

They operate silently, using water to react with dry chemicals in the fuel canister and using hydrolysis to create hydrogen, which in turn is converted into electricity by a fuel cell.

The generators' operating instructions list just three steps: Insert canister, add water, press "on."

Seftick would not disclose the price of the generator or fuel canisters. But last year, the company said the generators cost $2,495, while the batteries are $24.95 each.

Those working to attract Trulite included SCRA, SC Launch!, EngenuitySC, the city of Columbia, Midlands Technical College, USC, Richland County, Central SC Alliance and the S.C. Department of Commerce.