Ion America, the secretive Silicon Valley (Moffett Field) start-up apparently developing a fuel cell to produce hydrogen and electricity to power cars and trucks, has raised $103 million in its latest equity financing, its fourth round.

That is a lot of money, and we are not surprised, because the hand of Silicon Valley firm New Enterprise Associates is behind this one — and the firm, fresh from raising one of the largest venture funds ever, is getting aggressive in pushing investments in green technologies. (It is a hot sector right now, and it is one that can absorb a lot of cash, because presumably factories will be built down the line). Ion America filed a statement about the financing at the Securities & Exchange Commission, and VentureWire reported on it this morning (subscription required).

Investors in the company include NEA, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and Mobius Venture Capital. The total funding is now $165 million. Until now, if you have asked some of these folks about Ion America, they have declined to acknowledge its existence — though that may change now.

There is clear evidence on the Web of what the company is doing. It has successfully passed field tests in Sunnyvale and at the Alternative Energy Lab at the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga (see page five). Click on the image here to enlarge and see a diagram of what Ion America is up to.

Ion America’s fuel cell generates hydrogen and electricity. We have written about Ion America several times before, including a mention of management change. Kleiner Partner John Doerr, Mobius Managing Director Greg Galanos, and New Enterprise Associates General Partner Scott Sandell are board members. Sandell, you should now, is the guy who invested in SolFocus, a solar company in Palo Alto. He went in to SolFocus aggressively, and bid up the price several times higher than other bidders had offered — which we will write about soon.

Over the past few months, VentureWire notes, the Ion America has been granted patents for solid oxide regenerative fuel cell, the application of its fuel cell technology to airships, and the textured electrolyte component of its solid oxide fuel cell.

(PS. Something that is bothering us, in describing the hydrogen angle of this company, is that Kleiner Perkins’ John Doerr downplayed the feasibility of hydrogen as a major source of energy a few months ago. Since no one is talking about Ion America, it is difficult to know what they are really doing, and whether it jibes with Doerr’s view on hydrogen or not).

(Update: We double checked this with a few people, and there’s no dis-connect in Doerr’s stance. In downplaying hydrogen, Doerr was probably referring to compressed hydrogen, which is used as a storage medium in many fuel cell companies. This is the technology behind “the hydrogen economy” so often talked about in Washington, DC — as a way to potentially power cars. It has its limitations, because it requires so much energy input to create hydrogen in the first place. Solid Oxide Fuel Cells such as Ion America’s, however, can use any hydrocarbon as the fuel — gasoline, ethanol, methane, propane, butane, etc. There’s no need to store compressed hydrogen. Rather, hydrogen is produced as an output, and there is a ready market for it for “industrial uses,” as the above diagram suggests. The experts we talked with say they agree with Doerr’s skepticism about the hydrogen economy; indeed, the real dis-connect right now may be the one between investors and Washington policy.)

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