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Advanced Arena: Complex Ceramic Oxides in SOFC Applications, Part Two

Editor’s note: Part One of this column appeared in the December 2012 issue of Ceramic Industry and discussed the technology behind the complex ceramic oxide powders used in solid oxide fuel cell (SOFC) applications. Part Two discusses some of the market factors involved in bringing complex ceramic oxide-based SOFCs to market.

The range of applications in which complex ceramic oxide powders have shown considerable gains over traditional materials is extensive, but many of theCeramic oxides in SOFC applications potential benefits are just now being explored. Commercialization is quite a while off in many markets, but some complex ceramic oxides are currently used throughout established and developing markets.

Established markets include catalysts, sensors and electroceramics. Although these sectors offer greater potential than the still-developing SOFC market, they also offer other challenges, such as the difficulty of market entry and the saturation of competitive, less expensive products. Therefore, despite continued interest in the commercialization of SOFCs, the outlook for near-term commercialization is not as optimistic as it once was.

As Part One of this article discussed, much attention has been given to the development of mixed oxide ceramics for fuel cell components because of their ionic conducting and insulating qualities in both pure and doped forms. Material choice differs for each component but includes lanthanum manganite (LSM), yttria-stabilized zirconia (YSZ), cerium (Ce) oxides, perovskite structure ceramics, alkali metal niobates, and others. Complex ceramic oxide powders are under development for all components of the fuel cell, but most of the current research focuses on the benefits of having a complex ceramic oxide as the electrolyte. But why has optimism for the commercialization of SOFCs declined?

Commercialization Challenges

The development and commercialization of SOFCs poses several fundamental problems that are not easily overcome. In general, the great battle hinges on increasing the efficiency of the fuels cells, decreasing weight and heat emission in the case of portable devices, and keeping manufacturing costs down. For example, developing portable units is a major challenge because devices run in the range of 600°C, making them extremely difficult to install in airplanes and automobiles.

More specifically, the obstacles revolve around materials—not only the ceramics under development, but also the alternative materials used for the anode, cathode and casing. According to researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratories in Tennessee, scientists are currently in the third generation of fuel cell development. This generation is characterized by using metal at the anode in combination with a complex ceramic oxide as the electrolyte. This allows for good electron transfer, but the anodes tend to crack under stress. Thus, the next generation would have to consider different materials for the anode as well.

As an alternative, researchers are studying a fourth generation of SOFC that continues to use metal as the anode material; these would be constructed without nickel to avoid the potential for cracking. However, a reformation of the casing along with the development of alternative fuel materials would likely be required because of the resulting change in chemical reaction.

Another significant factor is simply the cost of materials, which vary in quality. Cheap varieties, while available, can affect the performance of the fuel cell. According to materials suppliers such as Treibacher Industries and Sigma Aldritch, YSZ is readily available and can range in price from $30-40 per ton to several hundred dollars per ton, depending on the quality. Other materials that would raise the quality of the fuel cell—such as scandia—are not so readily available and are much more expensive. Scandia can cost between $500-1,000 per kilo. Lanthanum, which is a primary material in the construction of fuel cells, also presents challenges. Presently, it is being supplied in pilot level quantities and costs $100-500 per kilo. These costs must come down appreciably in order for the market to become competitive. Thus, the factors that are prohibiting substantial growth in this market are present throughout the supply and value chain.

Market Potential

In 2012, the largest market for complex ceramic powders continued to be in research and development. R&D made up over 48% of the global market. Of this amount, R&D in the energy sector comprised 22%, or the largest share of the total. When adding the commercial market, demand continued to be heavily concentrated in the energy sector. In fact, over 44% of the market demand came from the development or commercialization for power devices, particularly SOFCs.

Of the remaining commercialized industries, the largest potential exists in the markets for catalysts, sensors, membranes and electroceramics. These cumulatively make up 21% of the market demand (see Figure 1). Many of the players in the ceramic industry consider catalysts to have the largest potential in the short term, electroceramics to be too well saturated and controlled by a small number of players, and membranes to be extremely research driven and several years away from the “holy grail.” Thus, the development and commercialization of SOFC represents a major revenue contender in the mid-term.

There are presently three major markets of focus for SOFCs: aerospace, automotive and residential. In 2012, the market was small for SOFCs within these markets, at less than $25 million globally. The residential market mainly involves stationary power supplies, while the aerospace and automotive markets are being developed from a portable device perspective.

Within the automotive and aerospace markets, fuel cells would be used for backup and auxiliary power, increasing efficiency overall and reducing the reliance on traditional fuel sources. It would also lower emissions. New products are expected to be introduced to these markets within the next five years, particularly to replace diesel engines in auxiliary power units (APUs). Further, once other main drawbacks are mitigated, the aerospace and automotive market potential will increase dramatically; with all the enhancements that are currently on the table, the market will move quickly to mass commercialization.

These portable markets offer the greatest short-term market potential for SOFCs. The residential market would involve units ranging from 10-20 kW for combined power and heat generation. One of the major efficiencies in using SOFCs in the home is that the heat generated could be diverted and used for hot water and climate control applications.

Other Possibilities

All this is not to say that the market offers no potential for substantial returns. Markets are still available for suppliers of complex ceramic oxide powders that would make it possible to create a presence when the market reaches viability. For example, several highly publicized programs in the U.S. have centered on the fuel cell market, particularly SOFCs. According to the Department of Energy, the federal government will allocate over $5 million in 2013 to be distributed throughout a variety of research institutes and universities to promote the advancement of sustainable energy and low emission solutions. In addition, these U.S. programs only represent a fraction of the developmental work being done worldwide.

The goals of these projects are focused on breaking through the obstacles mentioned here, particularly the inefficiencies that are related to materials and end-user operating environment. Although they represent a drop in the bucket financially, they encourage optimism in the dedication to developing these products.

Thus, it is not likely in the short term that the global market for complex ceramic oxide powders related to SOFCs will grow more than 10% annually (from a relatively small starting position). However, looking out 10-15 years, the growth factor could be exponential.

Editor’s note: The information within this article is based on data derived from advanced materials reports published by Dedalus Consulting. 

Any views or opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not represent those of Ceramic Industry, its staff, Editorial Advisory Board or BNP Media.

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