Fuel-Flexible Protonic Ceramic Fuel Cell Stack
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.
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.