FuelCell Energy has an $8 million contract from the U.S. Department of Energy, one with the promise of extending the purpose of the nation’s aging fleet of nuclear power plants — not to mention a possible new lease on life for the Danbury-based company’s fuel cells.

DOE will test whether nuclear plants can diversify their business model by diverting excess electricity and heat during periods of low demand into massive banks of fuel cells, which would use the currents to carve off hydrogen atoms from water molecules. The hydrogen could then be stored for a future day, to be reversed back through fuel cells to produce electricity when needed, or as market price dynamics make the technology more competitive.

FuelCell’s machines generate electricity through a chemical process, running hydrogen through stacks of coated metal membranes at scalding temperatures to siphon off electrons to create a current. On price, the technology has yet to prove competitive with electricity turbines powered by natural gas, but government agencies including the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection have extended incentives for fuel cell power plants, given they do not produce carbon emissions.

FuelCell did not respond immediately to a request for further details on the new DOE contract, which arrived as CEO Jason Few entered his second year leading the company.

“We see a market opportunity and momentum really building around ... the role that hydrogen will play in the transformation of the energy grid,” Few said in mid-September during a conference call with investment analysts. “We certainly see a much larger opportunity with electrolysis and long-duration hydrogen energy storage.”

Idaho National Laboratories will be the recipient of the initial DOE-funded fuel cell to be built at the company’s Danbury headquarters, rather than FuelCell’s Torrington factory. The nuclear research facility has been experimenting the past several years with experiments using electrochemical cells to convert excess electricity and water into hydrogen; then, when demand for electricity increases, reversing that hydrogen back through the fuel cells to produce it for the grid.

The infusion is sorely needed by FuelCell, which as of September continued to post a “going concern” warning to investors in light of more than $280 million in debt it is carrying. The company has not recorded any significant revenue from the sale of new fuel cells since 2018.

The $18.7 million in revenue FuelCell drew between May and July came from selling electricity produced by existing fuel cells to produce electricity; service and license deals with other operators; and advance technology pilots like the new Idaho National Laboratories project. The company reported a $15.3 million loss for the period.

The need for new sources of hydrogen is on the to-do list for the industrial gases giant Linde, according to CEO Steve Angel who works at a corporate office in Danbury. Linde produces hydrogen primarily through a process called reforming, in which high temperature steam reacts with methane in natural gas.

“Hydrogen is seen as an enabler to renewable power because one of the issues with renewable power is, as everyone knows, it is not as reliable — he winds don’t always blow, the sun doesn’t always shine,” Angel said last July on his company’s own efforts to increase hydrogen production for vehicles powered by fuel cells as well as electricity demand. “Hydrogen can be a storage mechanism for energy. ... Some of that remains to be seen how that is going to play out, but that is where a lot of the focus is today.”

Alex.Soule@scni.com; 203-842-2545; @casoulman