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November 8th, 2011

Can the US afford to pull the plug on SOFC and SECA funding?

Published on November 8th, 2011 | By: pwray@ceramics.org

Credit: Wachsman et al.; Energy & Environmental Science.


Will it anyway? Unfortunately, it looks that way, based on the DOE’s 2012 budget request (pdf), which hacks off 41 percent of total SOFC funding from the current year budget, and would leave support at 65 percent of what it had in 2010. Moreover, it would cut off funding for the Solid State Energy Conversion Alliance

The US policy of turning off its support for SOFC R&D seems to me to be a horrible and strategic error and I’d say that it’s time sound the alarm—but Eric Wachsman, Craig Marlowe and Kang Taek Lee beat me to it!

Wachsman et al. have a new paper in the Royal Society of Chemistry’s Energy & Environmental Science journal that politely and intelligently flays the logic behind a federal policy that abandons SECA and technical leadership in this field to other nations, such as Japan and Germany, despite the substantial progress that SECA has been shepherding. The three authors are affiliated with the University of Maryland’s Energy Research Center. Wachsman is a member of ACerS and also serves as editor of Ionics.

It probably comes as no surprise to people in the materials field that SOFCs have an enormous future. As the authors note, “SOFCs have the highest potential efficiency for the conversion of fuel to electricity,” and are extremely fuel-flexible.

The authors continue to build their initial premise, writing,

Recent progress in lowering operating temperature and power density improvements have made SOFCs a unique energy technology platform that offers stunning potential for electrical generation in not only centralized, but distributed and even mobile applications. Lowering operating temperatures reduces manufacturing costs, vastly simplifies the integration of balance of plant components and enables thermal cycling. Improved thermal cycling capabilities of low-temperature SOFCs would allow them to also play an important role in load following applications such as non-base-load electricity generation and transportation.”

So why would DOE walk away from SOFC technology now? (It should be noted that the DOE would shift most if not all of its support to proton exchange membrane fuel cells, aimed mostly at the transportation sector.) Wachsman et al. are baffled for a number of reasons, some of which I will attempt to capture here.

First, they hold up one of DOE’s main policy-making documents, its “Quadrennial Technology Review,” and compare its priorities with SOFC technology’s ability to deliver (see chart above). For example, the DOE lays out separate basic energy strategies for the “stationary” and “transport” marketplaces. Deployment of clean energy, grid modernization and improved building/factory efficiency are mentioned for the former; deployment of alternative fuels, fleet electrification and improved vehicle efficiency are identified for the latter. Sounds good, so far, the authors say, so SOFCs would seem to be able to be an important part of achieving all six of these strategies, if not a superior choice to the alternatives. “[F]uel cells in general, and SOFCs in particular, can be used in the execution of every DOE strategy. With an additional requirement that the technology utilize existing fueling infrastructure, SOFCs stand out as a key cross-cutting technology solution,” they argue.

They then go on to make detailed analyses of how SOFCs would contribute to each strategy. For example, in regard to deploying clean energy, they present a cogent, US-specific set of reasons for maintaining SOFCs in our technology portfolio.

“Today, 50 percent of the US’s electricity is produced from coal and 20 percent from natural gas. Our large reserves, and current lack of economically competitive alternatives, suggest that a sizable portion of our future electricity will continue to be derived from these two sources. …If electricity production remains dependent upon coal and natural gas, the sustainable use of these fuels and environmental emission reduction goals both require that we utilize these resources with the highest possible efficiency. While natural gas turbine technology has made significant progress and has efficiencies around 50%, coal technology still lags. Utilizing synthetic gas (syngas) derived from coal, SOFCs have potential efficiencies rivaling those of natural gas turbines. While many set a goal to eliminate our use of coal and natural gas, prudence suggests we ensure that their use is as efficient as possible until that goal is achieved.”

To further drive their point home, Wachsman et al. provide chapter and verse details of the remarkable achievements SECA-led R&D projects have made in lower operating temperatures, increasing power density, increasing materials durabilities and lowering costs. Wide scale applications and unsubsidized market penetration may still be a decade or so off, but impressive and successful demonstration and tests have occurred in uses that include

  • Utility-scale power generation (with nearly twice the fuel-to-electricity efficiency and half the levelized cost of electricity, compared to pulverized coal/carbon capture and sequestration systems);
  • High-efficiency distributed generation/gas turbine hybrid systems for grid stability and reversible (hydrogen-producing) SOFCs for grid storage;
  • Combined heat and power, and “trigeneration” (heating, cooling and power) systems with over 70 percent efficiencies;
  • Polygeneration system that can convert conventional energy sources “into multiple energy products, e.g., liquid fuels and electricity;”
  • Vehicular auxiliary power units that can provide parallel hybrid support for anything from efficient tractor-trailer refrigeration units to range-extenders for hybrid an plug-in hybrid electric vehicles.

In the lab, Wachsman et al. report that significant progress has been made, such as in “near quadrupling of power density [that] provides significant room for lowering SOFC operating temperature. Such temperatures dramatically expand applications and reduce cost, thus, fundamentally altering the fuel cell paradigm. LT-SOFCs provide the opportunity to obtain all of the anticipated fuel cell benefits without waiting for a H2 infrastructure.”

Billions of dollars have already been sunk into SOFC research, development and deployment. The authors conclude with reminding the DOE and the administration what is in clear view, namely, “Around the globe, meaningful pilots and commercialization activities are expanding in the use of SOFC driven CHP. Abandoning, or even delaying, investments into this cross cutting technology just as it is becoming commercially viable are not in our short or long term interests.”

And, they go on to plead that protecting these investments and restoring funding will “provide clarity to the public and stakeholders regarding our fuel cell vision, facilitate a promising technology on the cusp of commercialization and maintain the critical mass of talent that has been assembled with SECA and other promising commercial interests.”

Makes sense to me. If it does to you, you might want to let the folks in Washington, DC know what you think.

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One Response to Can the US afford to pull the plug on SOFC and SECA funding?

  1. brian says:

    I realize that this is not a popular opinion, but the Federal government can’t fund every project. It is broke. If the SOFC technology (of which i am a big proponent) is as close as the three scientists claim, then why don’t they apply for VC money?

    Continuing down the path of relying on the government to fund every ‘pet’ research project leaves us with the scenario listed in the story. The funding is at the mercy of those holding the purse-strings. Often those people have no scientific background, and move from one buzzword project to another. Examples are high temp superconductors, which had significant funding in the 1980s and 90s, to all the nano projects being funded in the last decade.

    Maybe the question should be: Should we really rely on the government to be the mother of invention? since she appears to be a very fickle mother.

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