Ceramic Opportunities in Fuel Cells

Fuel cells are still a number of years away from full commercialization, but the outlook for ceramic applications in this emerging market is promising.

A series of solid oxide fuel cells. Photo courtesy of Ceramic Fuel Cells Ltd., Noble Park, Victoria, Australia.
Within the past year, interest in fuel cells—both on the part of industry and the general public—has increased significantly. Once embraced primarily for their ability to minimize air pollution and conserve hydrocarbon fuels, fuel cells have recently gained even more popularity for their potential to reduce or eliminate our dependence on foreign oil through their ability to use a variety of different fuels. Automotive companies alone have spent an estimated $4.5 billion in the development of this new technology, and companies associated with the portable and stationary power industries have also invested heavily in fuel cell research and development. These days, you don’t have to look far to find a company that is pursuing some sort of technology related to fuel cells, whether on the supply or the manufacturing end, and new investments in fuel cell development are announced in press conferences and the general news media on a regular basis.

But how much of the publicity surrounding fuel cells is hype, and how much is reality? And what role will ceramics play in this new energy regime?

While the answers to these and other questions surrounding fuel cells remain largely a matter of speculation, one thing is certain: The potential for fuel cells—and for ceramic applications in fuel cells—is enormous. Some experts estimate that the market for fuel cells will reach $95 billion in 2010. Although a number of hurdles must be overcome before that level of market penetration can occur, the door is wide open for those who are willing to take on the challenge.

Fuel Cell Types

A fuel cell is an electrochemical energy conversion device that converts hydrogen and oxygen into electricity and heat. It is very much like a battery that can be recharged while power is being drawn from it. However, instead of recharging using electricity, a fuel cell uses hydrogen and oxygen.

A fuel cell consists of two electrodes, an anode and a cathode, separated by an electrolyte. Power is produced electrochemically when ions (charged particles) are formed at one end of the electrodes with the aid of a catalyst, and are then passed through the electrolyte. The current produced can be used for electricity.

A number of different types of fuel cells are currently in development, including phosphoric acid (PAFCs), molton carbonate (MCFCs), proton exchange membrane (PEMs), direct methanol (DMFCs) and solid oxide (SOFCs). Each type operates within a different temperature range and with varying levels of efficiency, making it suitable for use in different applications. PAFCs, which are considered the “first generation” of modern-day fuel cell technologies, are already being used around the world for applications in hospitals, nursing homes, hotels, office buildings, schools, utility power plants, an airport terminal, landfills and wastewater treatment plants. Over the past 20 years, however, advanced generations of fuel cell technologies, such as MCFCs, PEMs and SOFCs, have captured a large share of the spotlight. Of these technologies, SOFCs, which incorporate ceramic-based electrolytes as well as ceramic anode and cathode materials, hold the most promise for the ceramic industry.

For the past several years, a great deal of attention in the automotive industry has been focused on PEMs (which contain no ceramic components) because of their low operating temperatures (80C/175F). However, one ceramic manufacturer that has been carefully following the markets noted that the major automotive manufacturers are now looking away from PEMs and toward SOFCs because of the latter’s ability to use commonly available fossil fuels, such as natural gas, gasoline, diesel and kerosene, at low cost. PEMs, on the other hand, require highly refined hydrogen—a fuel that will be difficult to obtain without a completely new infrastructure.

According to Bruce Godfrey, managing director of Ceramic Fuel Cells Ltd., Noble Park, Victoria, Australia, “SOFCs have the best prospects for a broad and deep range of products covering a wide variety of applications, and they don’t need a hydrogen economy to arrive to underpin their usefulness.”

The U.S. government is also actively pursuing SOFC technology. The Solid State Energy Conversion Alliance (SECA), coordinated by the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, is working to create a low-cost, high-efficiency SOFC technology by 2010 for stationary, military and transportation applications. According to the SECA, the advantages of SOFCs include their high efficiency (40-60% efficiency in individual electric systems and up to 80% in hybrid systems) and fuel flexibility.

Challenges to SOFC Commercialization

Despite the growing popularity of SOFCs, a number of challenges bar the way to full commercialization of the technology. According to Jim Miller, manager of the Electrochemical Technology Program at Argonne National Laboratory, Argonne, Ill., high manufacturing costs and slow start-up times are the biggest factors. “Both of these are tied to the development of a lower-temperature form of SOFC,” Miller said. “Traditionally, SOFCs have operated at 1000C. We’re trying to get them down to 600-700C. At these lower temperatures, a composite structure can be used in which the electrodes and electrolytes are still ceramics, but the separator plates are metallic. This design provides a combination of metal toughness with the ionic transport [capabilities] of ceramic electrolytes.”

Miller also noted that there is a need for new, lower-cost materials and design changes that reduce the number of small parts and make the fuel cells easier to fabricate. “Another problem is building up enough volume so that you can get the economies of scale to make production less expensive,” he said.

According to Walter Garff, vice president of sales and marketing for Tal Materials, Inc., Ann Arbor, Mich., materials suppliers will play a key role in the success of SOFCs. “To some extent, [fuel cell developers] have to work with what they can get, and there are so many variables to take into consideration. I think that’s where we as suppliers have an opportunity—to make some of the more exotic materials on a direct production scale, and to make them cost effective,” Garff said. Tal Materials, NexTech Materials, Ltd., Magnesium Elektron Inc. (MEI), Tosoh Ceramics Division and Zirconia Sales (America) Inc. are just a few of the many suppliers that are working to provide the required materials.

Equipment manufacturers are also getting on board. Companies such as Harrop Industries Inc., Harper International Corp. and PSC Inc., are following the industry closely in an effort to develop technologies that will facilitate the manufacture of SOFCs and other types of fuel cells.

“As a custom kiln builder and a custom equipment purveyor, we think there is great promise in the fuel cell industry,” said Dan O’Brien, vice president of Harrop. “We’re working closely with clients and potential clients to try to understand all of the limitations that are out there, and how our equipment can help overcome those limitations.”

Boundless Opportunities

Most fuel cell developers agree that wide scale commercialization of fuel cells probably won’t occur until at least 2010 or later, and it is unclear which technology will capture the largest market share. According to Miller, “There is no single specific technical approach that is clearly superior in terms of what the ultimate successful design is going to be. Instead, a variety of fuel cell types will be used in various sectors of the market, because different types have different advantages.”

Even if SOFCs do not emerge as the biggest player, ceramics will likely find applications in other areas related to fuel cells. For example, Argonne’s Energy Technology Division has developed a ceramic membrane that can extract hydrogen from methane, the chief component of natural gas. This would provide a market for ceramics with the use of low-temperature fuel cells, such as PEMs. According to Steve Campbell, marketing director of NexTech Materials, Ltd., Worthington, Ohio, ceramic materials might also be used as catalysts in PEMs and other fuel cells.

One thing is clear: the opportunities for fuel cells, and for ceramics in fuel cells, are limited only by the imaginations of those who are pursing the technology. According to Campbell, manufacturers looking to get into the industry should learn as much as they can about the different technologies and be open to alternatives.

“Ceramic manufacturers that want to become involved in this market have to gain an understanding of fuel cells and how they work, and what the limitations are,” Campbell said. “Partnerships and relationships will be key—on the supply side, starting with the raw materials; to the intermediate processing side, where the raw materials are converted into the fuel cell material; and on the end use side, working with automotive companies, electric utilities and other potential users of fuel cells to determine their needs and challenges.”

Author's Note

This article is not intended to be a comprehensive overview of the companies involved in fuel cell technology. Manufacturers should contact their material or equipment supplier to find out whether the supplier is developing products related to fuel cell manufacturing. Information for this article was obtained from the sources quoted, as well as from fuel cell developers’ websites and the U.S. Department of Energy.

To add your company's name to the list of related websites below, e-mail grahlk@bnp.com.


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