Mines wins two-year award to develop fuel cells for distributed power applications

The State of Colorado’s Office of Economic Development and International Trade awarded the Colorado Fuel Cell Center and the Colorado Center for Advanced Ceramics to develop proton-conducting ceramic fuel cells for distributed electricity generation. Fuel cells are electric generators that convert the chemical energy found in natural gas and other fuels into electricity. Fuel cells achieve some of the highest efficiencies in making this electrochemical conversion, generating more energy per pound of fuel than any other conversion technology. Colorado School of Mines is a national leader in the field of fuel cells and has active programs with industrial partners and federal agencies to bring this technology into the commercial marketplace.

Schematic of the FlexPCFC, a proton-conducting ceramic fuel cell

Schematic of the FlexPCFC, a proton-conducting ceramic fuel cell

We propose to harness the unique properties of our novel proton-conducting ceramics to design, build and demonstrate operation of a fuel-flexible fuel cell technology called the “FlexPCFC.” The FlexPCFC employs a mixed proton and oxygen-ion conducting ceramic electrolyte to create a fuel-flexible fuel cell that operates at intermediate temperatures (400–600 ºC) with direct, high-efficiency operation on natural gas and other fuels. This fuel cell design represents a significant departure from standard ceramic fuel cell devices based on oxygen-ion conducting electrolytes (such as yttria-stabilized zirconia). Additionally, the FlexPCFC leverages our patent-pending solid-state reactive sintering (SSRS) process to enable a significant decrease in fuel cell manufacturing cost and complexity. This SSRS breakthrough allows the complete sandwich structure of the FlexPCFC (i.e., the porous anode, the dense electrolyte and the porous cathode) to be fabricated directly from raw precursor oxides using a single reduced-temperature firing step. This is far more straightforward and lower cost than conventional techniques that include multiple high-temperature processes to synthesize the materials and create the multilayer fuel cell.

Our target market is distributed generation (DG). There are over 12 million DG units in the U.S., with a capacity greater than 200 GW. Increased DG in the U.S. would have multiple benefits, including peak-load reduction, reactive power and voltage support, reduced T&D congestion, improved power quality and reduced grid vulnerability. Retail, technology, and manufacturing companies and owners of building complexes such as hospitals are implementing DG because of energy cost savings and increased reliability. Federal agencies are supporting a new challenge to install 40 GW of new, cost-effective DG by 2020. The expected benefits include $10 billion in energy savings, 1 Quad reduction in energy consumption and a CO2 reduction of 150 million metric tons.

The emergence of this technology into the national and global energy portfolio can result in hundreds of high-paying jobs for Coloradans. As the world’s largest technical ceramics manufacturer, CoorsTek Inc. is one of the few companies worldwide that could supply the raw materials needed to manufacture ceramic fuel cells on the scales needed by the emerging markets. NREL is a national leader in the field. The state’s public universities, particularly Colorado School of Mines, can make important contributions to market growth through fundamental and applied research and development, and critical training for the fuel cell engineers and scientists of tomorrow. Our FlexPCFC protonic-ceramic fuel cells and Colorado-based development team are uniquely positioned to capitalize on this market.

The program is supported under State of Colorado Award CTGG1 2016-1890 and begins in February of 2016.

The Primary Investigator is Associate Professor Neal P. Sullivan of the Mechanical Engineering Department, with Professor Ryan P. O’Hayre of the Metallurgical and Materials Engineering Department serving as Co-PI.