Nanocomposite Electrodes for a Solid Acid Fuel Cell Stack

Oak Ridge,
Project Term:
10/01/2014 - 10/07/2017

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:

Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) is redesigning a fuel cell electrode that operates at 250ºC. Today’s solid acid fuel cells (SAFCs) contain relatively inefficient cathodes, which require expensive platinum catalysts for the chemical reactions to take place. ORNL’s fuel cell will contain highly porous carbon nanostructures that increase the amount of surface area of the cell’s electrolyte, and substantially reduce the amount of catalyst required by the cell. By using nanostructured electrodes, ORNL can increase the performance of SAFC cathodes at a fraction of the cost of existing technologies. The ORNL team will also modify existing fuel processors to operate efficiently at reduced temperatures; those processors will work in conjunction with the fuel cell to lower costs at the system level. ORNL’s innovations will enable efficient distributed electricity generation from domestic fuel sources using less expensive catalysts.

Potential Impact:

If successful, ORNL will improve the efficiency of SAFCs by 30% and enable low-cost distributed electricity generation from domestic fuel sources.


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.


ARPA-E Program Director:
Dr. Paul Albertus
Project Contact:
Dr. Tom Zawodzinski
Press and General Inquiries Email:
Project Contact Email:


SAFCell, Inc.
University of Tennessee

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