Advanced Ceramics

Solid Oxide Fuel Cells Show Strength

August 4, 2010
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The 2010 European Fuel Cell Forum exhibited cutting-edge solid oxide fuel cell technology from all around the world.



From June 29 to July 2, 2010, over 400 scientists and engineers from four continents met in Lucerne, Switzerland, for the 9th European Solid Oxide Fuel Cell (SOFC) Forum. Advances in SOFC technology were reported in a variety of oral and poster presentations. Professor John T. S. Irvine of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland chaired the event. About 30 companies exhibited fuel cell products and components, and the tutorial by Augustin McEvoy,Ph.D., was well attended. Ulf Bossel, Ph.D., initiator of the European Fuel Cell Forum, received the Christian Friedrich Schoenbein Medal of Honor for his creation of this successful conference series. Under his guidance, the European Fuel Cell Forum has become one of the most important technical events in the area of fuel cells.

As in previous years, the Culture and Congress Center of Lucerne provided an attractive venue for the event. The side program offered many opportunities for networking, and the traditional Dinner on the Lake was one of the highlights of the social program. Perfect weather helped make the boat ride on the two paddlewheel steamers a memorable evening. Even after the boats had docked again in Lucerne, the party continued for about an hour with live music by the Italian band “Z-Funk di Milano.”

Understanding SOFCs

SOFCs are currently earning increased recognition by potential users, especially because of their fuel flexibility and operability with standard commercial gaseous and liquid fuels. Because of the higher stack temperatures, these fuels can be converted into electricity at a higher efficiency than other types of fuel cells. This advantage follows from physics and cannot be challenged by research focused on competitive cell families.

In addition, because of its high temperature, the waste heat of solid oxide fuel cells is easier to use than the low temperature heat from other fuel cells. Many well-known companies in the areas of ceramics, thermal engineering and power plants, automotive parts, and residential heating now recognize the advantages and potential of this innovative technology and offer SOFC components or complete SOFC systems.

A Global Effort

Today, SOFC membranes of excellent quality are offered by a growing number of manufacturers in Europe and the U.S., as well as Japan, Korea and China. For example, in Lucerne, the Chinese Ningbo Institute of Material Technology and Engineering has exhibited electrolyte- and anode-supported cells of high quality in many sizes. The Far East is beginning to play an active role in the development, commercialization and implementation of SOFCs.

Alloys developed for SOFC bipolar plates and other high-temperature components are now offered by several manufacturers. The bipolar flow channels are formed by stamping, etching or powder sintering. In addition, complete SOFC stacks can be obtained from a number of companies.

The positive development is supported by excellent progress in science and technology at a growing number of research institutions and universities worldwide. The German Research Center Jülich, DLR in Stuttgart, Fraunhofer IKTS in Dresden, IWE in Karlsruhe, Risö/DTU in Denmark, ETH and EMPA in Switzerland, CEA in France, Imperial College and St. Andrews in the UK, and many university institutes in other European countries illustrate the breadth of research activities in the SOFC area. At the 9th European SOFC Forum, these research centers found many opportunities to link up with institutions of similar standing in North America, Asia and Australia.

The industry is now moving toward markets with cooperation agreements, mergers, acquisitions of know-how and manufacturing facilities. The Danish company Haldor Topsoe has formed a spin-off Topsoe Fuel Cells A/S, which already has 130 employees. This company is closely cooperating with Wärtsilä, a Finnish manufacturer of large diesel engines. The goal is the development of SOFC generators in the 100kW range for electricity generation on ships and land. A number of SOFC companies have also been founded around the Fraunhofer Institute for Ceramic Technologies and Systems (IKTS) in Dresden, Germany, and the Swiss start-up company HTceramix has become part of the Italian company SOFCpower. In England, CERES Power has established a close cooperation with British Gas. Strong clusters are formed for the commercialization of the SOFC technology.

A signal of particular interest is the move of the Australian Ceramic Fuel Cells Limited (CFCL) to invest a significant sum in an SOFC manufacturing site in Germany. SOFC mini heat and power units for residential applications will be built for applications not only in Germany, but also for export to other parts of the world. The first units are rated at 60% overall electrical efficiency based on the LHV of natural gas.

A Promising Outlook

For years, SOFCs were considered useful only for stationary cogeneration in the upper power range. This perspective is no longer valid. The California-based SOFC developer Bloom Energy is already operating tens of its100 kW units at customer sites. Many manufacturers like Hexis, Vaillant (switched from PEM to SOFC), CFCL and SOFCpower, offer mini combined heat and power (CHP) units for residential applications with SOFC stacks in the 1 kW range. In the U.S., portable SOFC generators the size of a wine bottle are being built for private and military applications. These units generate DC power in the range of 100 watts from diesel fuel or propane. The lower power domain was long considered a typical application for PEM fuel cells, but it is now progressively taken over by SOFC systems.

In Lucerne, the Swiss company ALMUS AG has presented a 200 watt SOFC module with electrically heated bipolar plates for rapid start-up. Operating temperatures of 700°C can be reached in less than five minutes.

Even in the milliwatt range, SOFC generators could become of interest. At the ETH in Zurich, micro-cells have been developed for operation with propane. Although they are only a few microns thick, their electrolytes can deliver power for small electronic equipment at membrane temperatures as low as 400°C.

SOFC applications in the transportation sector are promising as well. For a number of years, the SOFC has been considered for auxiliary power generation (APU) to replace electric generators coupled to IC engines. Today, the SOFC is a hot candidate as a range extender in electric vehicles. Conventional gas station fuel and infrastructure can be used with convenience. With the rapid start-up modules of ALMUS AG, the possibility of SOFC-battery hybrid propulsion is no longer a utopian vision, but has become a realistic choice for electric transportation systems without waiting for new infrastructures. The process can provide a clean technology (if biofuels are used) while generating significant savings potential for fossil fuels.

The Forum Community

The conference in Lucerne not only delivered practical experience, but has also produced a rich assembly of scientific results. For the first time this year, all manuscripts have been compiled in the proceedings on a practical USB memory stick. They can be ordered for 300 Swiss Francs at forum@efcf.com.

Next year, the European Fuel Cell Forum 2011will be offered from June 28 to July 1. Under the chairman, Professor Andreas Friedrich of the DLR in Stuttgart, all fuel cell concepts will be presented. Later this year, the administrative office will be moved to Lucerne. However, the contact coordinates will remain forum@efcf.com and www.efcf.com. Abstracts may be submitted before November 30, 2010, by e-mail attachment to forum@efcf.com.

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