Ceramic Energy: Advancing SOFCs for Distributed Generation

September 1, 2005
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The National Energy Technology Laboratory's SECA program is helping SOFCs for distributed generation move closer to commercialization

Delphi's SOFC auxiliary power unit will deliver up to 5 kW of energy for transportation and non-transportation applications. Prototype samples are expected to be available by late 2005. Image courtesy of Delphi Energy & Chassis, Troy, Mich.
Funding for fuel cells in the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Fossil Energy (FE) Distributed Generation (DG) program is at its highest level ever in fiscal 2005, including a $54.2 million budget for the Solid State Energy Conversion Alliance (SECA), $12.2 million for advanced research at the High Temperature Electrochemistry Center (HiTEC) at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL), and $5 million for hybrid coal-based central systems.

The mission of the DG program is to ensure the widespread deployment of clean distributed generation fuel cells, hybrids and novel generation technologies. In the fuel cell area specifically, the mission is to reduce costs and improve reliability so that fuel cells can be widely deployed in stationary applications from DG to central stations. The program goals are to achieve a tenfold cost reduction to $400/kW with 40-60% efficiency by 2010, to undergo advanced technology slipstream testing at the FutureGen Site by 2012-2015, and to develop a hybrid fuel cell applicable to 60% efficient coal-based power systems by 2020.

The National Energy Technology Laboratory's (NETL) SECA program is playing a crucial role in reaching these objectives. SECA is an alliance of industry groups that individually plan to commercialize solid oxide fuel cell (SOFC) systems for pre-defined markets; research and development institutions involved in solid-state development activities; and government organizations that provide funding and management for the program. The SECA alliance was formed in 1999 to accelerate the commercial readiness of SOFCs in the 3 to 10 kW range for use in stationary, transportation and military applications. Recently, a number of advances achieved through SECA have helped push SOFCs closer to commercialization.

A FutureGen plant with SOFC technology. Image courtesy of SECA.

A Team Approach

Within SECA, several industry teams are working toward developing SOFC system prototypes with a net power output of 3 to 10 kW. Each industry team is expected to:

1. Propose a SOFC design for a target market;

2. Coordinate the process of refining the design elements that will contribute to a high-power-density SOFC that can be mass produced, with end-users and manufacturers; and

3. Communicate their R&D gaps with SECA's Core Technology Program (CTP)-a group composed of universities, national labs and other research institutions.

The industry teams are independent and therefore compete with each other; however, all are committed to the concept of mass customization as the pathway to reducing the cost of fuel cell systems. The teams are targeting a wide variety of markets, including DG, to attain high volumes. As the industry teams develop and refine their SOFC designs, any R&D gaps are identified and given to the Core Technology Program participants to research. This allows the industry teams to continue their SOFC development process, while the CTP participants are developing and researching much-needed breakthrough technologies.

Each industry team project is structured in three phases over 10 years and follows the minimum requirements established by SECA. At the end of each phase, the prototype is tested according to these minimum requirements.

All of the SECA industry teams are making excellent progress in Phase I using their proprietary and patent positions toward developing alternatives.

For example, General Electric Power Systems (GE) is developing a compact natural gas 5-kW planar, 700 to 800°C, anode-supported SOFC unit for residential power markets. GE is evaluating several stack designs, and is especially interested in extending planar SOFCs to large hybrid systems. The 900 cm2 cell is the largest the company has ever manufactured. GE has achieved 307 mW/cm2 in a radial planar, 21-cell 800°C stack and has already achieved over 400 mW/cm2 in a single cell-exceeding its Phase I SECA targets for stack power density and utilization.

Delphi Automotive Systems, in partnership with Battelle Science & Technology International, is working on a third-generation design that has achieved

420 mW/cm2 in two 30-cell stacks and nearly 600 mW/cm2 in a five-cell stack. Delphi is expert at system integration, high-volume manufacturing and cost reduction. The company is focused on making a very compact and lightweight system suitable for auxiliary power in transportation applications.

Siemens Westinghouse Power Corp.'s (SWPC) flattened high-power-density tubes have achieved a 300 mW/cm2 at 85% fuel utilization at 1000°C, and SWPC has other designs that it expects will achieve 400 mW/cm2. Fuel Cell Technologies, Blasch Precision Ceramics, Lennox Industries, the Trane Co., Ford Motor Co., Eaton Corp., and Newport News are working with SWPC on these technologies. The SECA program has remarkably increased the power density from the days of air electrode supported (AES) tubes.

Other teams are also making excellent progress and are committed to manufacturing SOFCs. For instance, Acumentric's manufacturing costs may be much lower than some previous fuel cell technologies, and Versa Power Systems' (VPS) progress has been significantly accelerated with the incorporation of FuelCell Energy's Global Thermoelectric technology and manufacturing capability. (FuelCell Energy acquired an equity position in VPS in 2004 and transferred Global's SOFC development team and assets to the company.) Materials and Systems Research, the University of Utah, GTI, EPRI, Dana Corp. and PNNL are also part of the VPS/FuelCell Energy team. Additionally, Cummins, the world's largest manufacturer of generators to the RV market, may qualify its SECA project as a pilot in its corporate Value Package Introduction program. Cummins is teamed with SOFCo on this project; key subcontractors include Ceramatec, Inc. and Advanced Refractory Technologies.

Two 5-kW SOFC units. Photo courtesy of Acumentrics, Westwood, Mass.

Refining Core Technologies

The Core Technology Program is providing the collaborative system design improvements and technology transfer that will help to meet the Phase I cost and performance targets outlined in the industry teams' solicitations. CTP transferred technology is helping to solve problems with seals, interconnects, electrodes, fuel processing and other issues.

For example, PNNL and Argonne National Laboratory determined the location and form of chromium (Cr) deposition and migration in SOFC cathode compositions, and also spearheaded a Cr workshop to formulate a plan to investigate Cr interactions.

PNNL and MSC Software developed a FEM-based multi-physics MARC code enhanced by GUI that incorporates materials, electrochemistry and empirical flow modules. PNNL is reporting the results in a short course.

Additionally, a seal workshop resulted in a much larger set of seal concepts in development. A mica and glass seal composition developed by PNNL is meeting leakage and thermal cycle requirements. PNNL also developed cathode materials permitting 575 mW/cm2 @ 0.7 volts in a 30-cell, 106 cm2 cell stack; as well as a sulfur-, carbon- and oxygen-tolerant anode that is undergoing further performance improvement work.

Virginia Tech developed a 98% efficient power electronics/inverter package that is undergoing technology transfer and is available for licensing. And the University of Illinois has developed integrated SOFC/power electronics integration software that is also undergoing technology transfer. The software includes balance of plant information for both solid oxide and polymer electrolyte (PE) fuel cells, and provides a dynamic model for load transients to develop control strategies for any application.

A 5-kW SOFC system. Image courtesy of Fuel Cell Technology, Kingston, Ontario, Canada.

Real-World Applications

Among DG technology types, reciprocating engines dominate the current landscape at 86%, and combustion turbines are a distant second at 7%. Emergency/standby applications lead the field with 81%, while combined heat and power is a distant second at 9%. The SECA program should significantly alter these percentages.

At the end of 2003, the U.S. had an estimated 234 GW of installed DG, with DG defined as generation less than 60 MW in size. However, almost all of it was not interconnected with the electrical transmission and distribution (T&D) system. DG capacity that functions as part of the grid (grid-connected) was estimated at 30 GW, which accounts for only 3% of the U.S. electric grid capability of 953 GW. Again, the SECA program presents an opportunity to support the grid.

Escalating fossil fuel prices are putting an unprecedented premium on system efficiency, which favors SOFCs. Additionally, poor grid reliability is inhibiting growth in all economic sectors, including IT, and the baseload profiles of these industrial sectors also favor SOFCs.

The potential markets for SOFCs are enormous, and it is estimated that one job will be created for every 1 MW of sales. As the SECA program produces competitive technology, a commensurate growth must occur in manufacturing capacity. This is achievable through the mass production of common modules for multiple applications. It is estimated that the SECA cost target can be met with a 50,000 to 100,000-unit-per-year manufacturing rate (0.5-1.0 GW/yr). Some initial small manufacturing facilities already exist-two SECA industry teams (Siemens Westinghouse Power Corp. and VPS) have around 5 MW/year.

Incentives are needed to support manufacturing development through production and employment retention grants, other loans and grants, rebates and price incentives, net metering, and tax incentives, including tax-exempt financing and property tax exemptions.

Some states have clearly taken an aggressive initiative to be the manufacturing and employment base for fuel cell technology. For example, Ohio leads the way with its fuel cell grant and loan programs and its renewable energy program. The Ohio Fuel Cell Grant Program is a $103 million, three-year initiative to invest in research, project demonstration and job creation. This includes $75 million in financing to make strategic capital investments that will create and retain jobs, $25 million for fuel cell research, development and demonstration, and $3 million for worker training. The Ohio Fuel Cell Loan Program provides $15 million to finance traditional economic development investments for expansion of Ohio's fuel cell industry through low-interest loans and guarantees, with a maximum loan per company of $5 million. Additionally, the Ohio Department of Development (ODOD) has set aside $60 million in federal volume cap for tax-exempt financing of qualified projects. And under Ohio's Renewable Energy Program, 11 banks provide reduced interest rates, by approximately half, on loans for those qualifying Ohio residents and businesses for energy efficient technologies, renewable energy and fuel cells.

For SOFCs and other fuel cell technologies to succeed, it is imperative that other states, as well as the federal government, continue to support fuel cell technology development.

Moving Forward

Although it began as a small Advanced Research Activity, SECA has now progressed into a $60-million-per-year national fuel cell program supported by the U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB) budget request. The 2006 OMB request is the highest ever in the DOE FE for fuel cells. However, this year's budget committee reorganization in the House and Senate has made this a potentially difficult budget transition period. Continued industry, research and government support is necessary to ensure high levels of SECA funding-and eventual commercialization of SOFCs for DG and other power applications.

For more information about the SECA program, including a list of industry teams and Core Technology Program Partners, e-mail mark.williams@netl.doe.gov or visit http://www.seca.doe.gov. A complete listing of all state and federal incentives for fuel cell technologies can be found at www.dsireusa.org.

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