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Fuel-Flexible Protonic Ceramic Fuel Cell Stack

Colorado School of Mines
ARPA-E Award: 
Golden, CO
Project Term: 
10/01/2014 to 09/21/2020
Project Status: 
Technical Categories: 
Graphic of Mines' technology
Critical Need: 

Centralized power generation systems offer excellent economy of scale but often require long transmission distances between supply and distribution points, leading to efficiency losses throughout the grid. Additionally, it can be challenging to integrate energy from renewable energy sources into centralized systems. Fuel cells--or devices that convert the chemical energy of a fuel source into electrical energy--are optimal for distributed power generation systems, which generate power close to where it is used. Distributed generation systems offer an alternative to the large, centralized power generation facilities or power plants that are currently commonplace. There is also a need for small, modular technologies that convert natural gas to liquid fuels and other products for easier transport. Such processes are currently limited to very large installations with high capital expenses. Today's fuel cell research generally focuses on technologies that either operate at high temperatures for grid-scale applications or at low temperatures for vehicle technologies. There is a critical need for intermediate-temperature fuel cells that offer low-cost, distributed generation both at the system and device levels.

Project Innovation + Advantages: 

The Colorado School of Mines is developing a mixed proton and oxygen ion conducting electrolyte that will allow a fuel cell to operate at temperatures less than 500°C. By using a proton and oxygen ion electrolyte, the fuel cell stack is able to reduce coking - which clogs anodes with carbon deposits - and enhance the process of turning hydrocarbon fuels into hydrogen. Today's ceramic fuel cells are based on oxygen-ion conducting electrolytes and operate at high temperatures. Mines' advanced mixed proton and oxygen-ion conducting fuel cells will operate on lower temperatures, and have the capacity to run on hydrogen, ethanol, methanol, or methane, representing a drastic improvement over using only oxygen-ion conducting electrolytes. Additionally, the fuel cell will leverage a recently developed ceramic processing technique that decreases fuel cell manufacturing cost and complexity. Additionally, their technology will reduce the number of manufacturing steps from 15 to 3, drastically reducing the cost of distributed generation applications.

Potential Impact: 

If successful, Mines' unique architecture will enable fuel cells that operate at intermediate temperatures, run on affordable natural gas, and are less expensive to produce than existing technologies.


Enabling more efficient use of natural gas for power generation provides a reliable alternative to other fuel sources--a broader fuel portfolio means more energy security.


Natural gas produces roughly half the carbon dioxide emissions of coal, making it an environmentally friendly alternative to existing sources of power generation.


Distributed generation technologies would reduce costs associated with power losses compared to centralized power stations and provide lower operating costs due to peak shaving.

Innovation Update: 

(As of May 2018)

The Mines team aimed to create commercially relevant, proton-conducting ceramic fuel cell stacks capable of operating on natural gas fuel. To do so, the team first addressed cell-level material challenges to increase the cell active area by 40 times through a new fabrication process. That enabled the team to create the first proton-conducting cells beyond a “button cell.” Researchers then optimized the manufacturing process and materials to enable the cell to operate directly on methane at 550°C or less without degradation. Mines’ new cells can operate on a variety of fuels for thousands of hours with minimal degradation. Having scaled up and optimized individual cells, the team integrated them into a three-cell stack with a power density of approximately 200mW/cm2. Analysis showed substantial cost savings at the stack and system level.


The Mines team is partnering with FuelCell Energy to further scale up their cell area more than six fold, create a 500 W prototype, and quantify the degradation behavior under different fuel types. Working with FuelCell will allow Mines to prove the commercial viability of their cell and develop a more sophisticated cost model to help the team elaborate on the benefits of their technology.


For a detailed assessment of the Mines project and impact, please click here.


ARPA-E Program Director: 
Dr. Grigorii Soloveichik
Project Contact: 
Prof. Ryan O'Hayre
Versa Power Systems, Ltd.
Release Date: