Pacific Northwest National Laboratory developed this highly efficient, small-scale solid oxide fuel cell system that features PNNL-developed microchannel technology and two unusual processes, called external steam reforming and fuel recycling. Credit: PNNL
homes and entire neighborhoods could be powered with a new, small-scale
solid oxide fuel cell system that achieves up to 57% efficiency,
significantly higher than the 30 to 50% efficiencies previously reported
for other solid oxide fuel cell systems of its size, according to a
study published in this month’s issue of Journal of Power Sources.
smaller system, developed at the Department of Energy’s Pacific
Northwest National Laboratory, uses methane, the primary component of
natural gas, as its fuel. The entire system was streamlined to make it
more efficient and scalable by using PNNL-developed microchannel
technology in combination with processes called external steam reforming
and fuel recycling. PNNL’s system includes fuel cell stacks developed
earlier with the support of DOE’s Solid State Energy Conversion
oxide fuels cells are a promising technology for providing clean,
efficient energy. But, until now, most people have focused on larger
systems that produce 1 MW of power or more and can replace traditional
power plants,” said Vincent Sprenkle, a co-author on the paper and chief
engineer of PNNL’s solid oxide fuel cell development program. “However,
this research shows that smaller solid oxide fuel cells that generate
between 1 and 100 kW of power are a viable option for highly efficient,
localized power generation.”
and his co-authors had community-sized power generation in mind when
they started working on their solid oxide fuel cell, also known as a
SOFC. The pilot system they built generates about 2 kW of electricity,
or how much power a typical American home consumes. The PNNL team
designed its system so it can be scaled up to produce between 100 and
250 kW, which could provide power for about 50 to 100 American homes.
What is an SOFC?
cells are a lot like batteries in that they use anodes, cathodes and
electrolytes to produce electricity. But unlike most batteries, which
stop working when they use up their reactive materials, fuel cells can
continuously make electricity if they have a constant fuel supply.
are one type of fuel cell that operate at higher temperatures—between
about 1100 and 1,800 F—and can run on a wide variety of fuels, including
natural gas, biogas, hydrogen and liquid fuels such as diesel and
gasoline that have been reformed and cleaned. Each SOFC is made of
ceramic materials, which form three layers: the anode, the cathode and
the electrolyte. Air is pumped up against an outer layer, the cathode.
Oxygen from the air becomes a negatively charged ion, O2- , where the
cathode and the inner electrolyte layer meet. The ion moves through the
electrolyte to reach the final layer, the anode. There, the oxygen ion
reacts with a fuel. This reaction creates electricity, as well as the
byproducts steam and carbon dioxide. That electricity can be used to
power homes, neighborhoods, cities and more.
big advantage to fuel cells is that they’re more efficient than
traditional power generation. For example, the combustion engines of
portable generators only convert about 18% of the chemical energy in
fuel into electricity. In contrast, some SOFCs can achieve up to 60%
efficiency. Being more efficient means that SOFCs consume less fuel and
create less pollution for the amount of electricity produced than
traditional power generation, including coal power plants.
and his PNNL colleagues are interested in smaller systems because of
the advantages they have over larger ones. Large systems generate more
power than can be consumed in their immediate area, so a lot of their
electricity has to be sent to other places through transmission lines.
Unfortunately, some power is lost in the process. On the other hand,
smaller systems are physically smaller in size, so they can be placed
closer to power users. This means the electricity they produce doesn’t
have to be sent as far. This makes smaller systems ideal for what’s
called distributed generation, or generating electricity in relatively
small amounts for local use such as in individual homes or
Goal: Small and efficient
the advantages of smaller SOFC systems, the PNNL team wanted to design a
small system that could be both more than 50% efficient and easily
scaled up for distributed generation. To do this, the team first used a
process called external steam reforming. In general, steam reforming
mixes steam with the fuel, leading the two to react and create
intermediate products. The intermediates, carbon monoxide and hydrogen,
then react with oxygen at the fuel cell’s anode. Just as described
before, this reaction generates electricity, as well as the byproducts
steam and carbon dioxide.
reforming has been used with fuel cells before, but the approach
requires heat that, when directly exposed to the fuel cell, causes
uneven temperatures on the ceramic layers that can potentially weaken
and break the fuel cell. So the PNNL team opted for external steam
reforming, which completes the initial reactions between steam and the
fuel outside of the fuel cell.
external steam reforming process requires a device called a heat
exchanger, where a wall made of a conductive material like metal
separates two gases. On one side of the wall is the hot exhaust that is
expelled as a byproduct of the reaction inside the fuel cell. On the
other side is a cooler gas that is heading toward the fuel cell. Heat
moves from the hot gas, through the wall and into the cool incoming gas,
warming it to the temperatures needed for the reaction to take place
inside the fuel cell.
Efficiency with micro technology
key to the efficiency of this small SOFC system is the use of a
PNNL-developed microchannel technology in the system’s multiple heat
exchangers. Instead of having just one wall that separates the two
gases, PNNL’s microchannel heat exchangers have multiple walls created
by a series of tiny looping channels that are narrower than a paper
clip. This increases the surface area, allowing more heat to be
transferred and making the system more efficient. PNNL’s microchannel
heat exchanger was designed so that very little additional pressure is
needed to move the gas through the turns and curves of the looping
second unique aspect of the system is that it recycles. Specifically,
the system uses the exhaust, made up of steam and heat byproducts,
coming from the anode to maintain the steam reforming process. This
recycling means the system doesn’t need an electric device that heats
water to create steam. Reusing the steam, which is mixed with fuel, also
means the system is able to use up some of the leftover fuel it wasn’t
able to consume when the fuel first moved through the fuel cell.
combination of external steam reforming and steam recycling with the
PNNL-developed microchannel heat exchangers made the team’s small SOFC
system extremely efficient. Together, these characteristics help the
system use as little energy as possible and allows more net electricity
to be produced in the end. Lab tests showed the system’s net efficiency
ranged from 48.2% at 2.2 kW to a high of 56.6% at 1.7 kW. The team
calculates they could raise the system’s efficiency to 60 percent with a
few more adjustments.
PNNL team would like to see their research translated into an SOFC
power system that’s used by individual homeowners or utilities.
still are significant efforts required to reduce the overall cost to a
point where it is economical for distributed generation applications,”
Sprenkle explained. “However, this demonstration does provide an
excellent blueprint on how to build a system that could increase
electricity generation while reducing carbon emissions.”
The research was supported by DOE’s Office of Fossil Energy.