Features - July 2014

NETL-led Partnership Drives Clean, Efficient Fuel Cells from Lab to Market

A central goal of the President’s Management Agenda is accelerating the transfer of federally funded research from the laboratory to the commercial marketplace. In this paradigm, government, university, and industry communities work together to advance a “Lab-to-Market” agenda, which aims to significantly increase the American people’s return on investment. The Solid State Energy Conversion Alliance (SECA), managed by NETL, is one very successful example of government-academia-industry collaboration that is working to bring highly efficient, environmentally sound fuel cells to the marketplace.

Why Fuel Cells?

In 1999, SECA was established to capitalize on the advantages of solid oxide fuel cell (SOFC) technology and develop SOFCs that could eventually be sold in any energy market needing clean, affordable, electric power. Fuel cell systems are environmentally sound with inherently low emissions and ultrahigh efficiency, and may be compatible with the strictest environmental regulations. Relative to other fuel cell types, SOFCs are naturally fuel flexible. SOFCs  can operate on a variety of fuels, including transportation fuels; coal-, biomass-, and waste-derived synthesis gas; and natural gas, which is a notable advantage since the United States is experiencing a significant increase in natural gas production and use. 

Diagram of a solid oxide fuel cell. SOFCs are electrochemical devices that convert chemical energy of a fuel and oxidant directly into electrical energy.  Diagram of a solid oxide fuel cell. SOFCs are electrochemical devices that convert chemical energy of a fuel and oxidant directly into electrical energy.

NETL’s SOFC program supports natural gas-fueled distributed generation applications—a type of electricity production that places power at customer sites—as an intermediate goal. SOFCs are an emerging technology. Initial market penetration and success in natural gas distributed generation applications will accelerate the progress of technology development and reduce cost. Today, SOFC systems for distributed generation are produced in low volume and can cost more than $6,000 per kilowatt, requiring federal and state subsidies to be economically competitive with traditional distributed generation technologies. By comparison, to bring the clean, efficient SECA technology from lab to mainstream distributed generation markets without subsidies would require a cost reduction to approximately $2,000 per kilowatt. This is the challenge that SECA is working to overcome.  

SECA Solution

SECA’s success in its technology transfer mission arises from active integration among the national laboratory, university, and industry participants. Rather than parsing resources to multiple independent entities pursuing the over-arching goal, SECA program managers actively work with program participants and facilitate integration of Industrial Teams with the Core Technology Program.

The Core Technology Program is composed of researchers from universities, national laboratories, and small businesses across the country, who are working together to provide vital R&D to support the Industry Teams. The Industry Teams use the innovations and outcomes of the Core Technology Program’s research to pursue innovations in fuel cell design. For example, the research teams are currently investigating interconnect coatings, compliant seals, additive manufacturing techniques, and improved system models, which are intended to reduce the industry team’s operating and production costs.

The SECA Industry Teams design and manufacture the fuel cells and handle hardware integration and system engineering as they prepare to commercialize SOFC systems for their market-entry products. Laboratory-scale stack tests, proof-of-concept systems, pilot-scale demonstrations, and deployment of full-scale commercial power systems are the responsibility of the Industry Teams. Industry Teams independently pursue system designs optimized for a target market approach. This multi-team strategy provides technology diversification and reduces the program’s dependency on a single developer.

The SECA program consists of three groups: the Industry Teams, the Core Technology Program, and Federal Government Management. The SECA program consists of three groups: the Industry Teams, the Core Technology Program, and Federal Government Management.

As the managing entity of this collaboration, NETL facilitates interaction between Industry Teams and the Core Technology Program and establishes technical priorities and approaches to ensure that major issues are addressed, moving the technology forward in large strides. The Industry Teams provide input, via NETL management, to shape the Core Technology Program. As the Industry Teams develop and refine their SOFC designs, R&D gaps are identified and given to the Core Technology Program participants to research. This allows the Industry Teams to continue their SOFC development process, while the Core Technology Program participants develop breakthrough technologies. This program structure reduces R&D cost by leveraging resources so that the Industry Teams do not engage in redundant applied research programs, paying multiple times for the same technical solutions.

Since its inception, SECA has significantly reduced the cost of SOFC stacks. Cell performance improvements, increased power density, enhanced reliability, and advanced manufacturing techniques all contributed to this cost reduction. These improvements were made possible through integrated collaboration among NETL, the Industry Teams, and the Core Technology program.

The potential technical and performance advantages of the SECA SOFC technology have attracted interest in a number of spin-off applications. The U.S. Navy’s Office of Naval research is evaluating the technology for use in advanced unmanned undersea vehicles, for long endurance undersea vehicle propulsion, and for other (classified) innovative applications. Additionally, the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has a program to develop a very long endurance unmanned aircraft powered by SECA technology.

Powering Forward

Today, research is focused on improving the reliability and endurance of full-size cells and stacks, with the ultimate goal of transferring technology that facilitates commercial acceptance of SOFC devices. NETL maintains close communication with major SOFC developers and continues to direct specific technical activities to support their product development.

A researcher at NETL fits a sensor within a SOFC stack. A researcher at NETL fits a sensor within a SOFC stack.

The SECA Industry Teams are now focused on developing the reliability, robustness, and endurance required for commercial central generation. Long stack life and low performance degradation are critical to the economic viability of SOFC technology in commercial power-generation applications and to ensure competitiveness with other technologies.

Aiding in this endeavor, the Core Technology Program is focused on investigating cell and stack degradation to help facilitate targeted efforts to improve fuel cell longevity and decreased system costs; developing cathode materials and engineering microstructure to increase cell efficiency and diminish system costs; and pursuing catalytic fuel reforming, which will facilitate further modeling and analysis of industrial-scale processes to aid in deploying the technology.

Through technology transfer, industry partnerships and demonstration projects, the National Labs are ensuring that public investments in science and technology have a life beyond the Lab. The SECA program is a highly successful example of productive partnerships, managed by NETL, that are preparing clean, efficient energy technology for the commercial market.