Credit: NETL.

I flinch when I hear the term “clean coal” because there is more than a little hyperbole imbedded in it. But, cleaner coal seems to me to be a more reasonable goal and I have heard a lot of reasonable presentations on how major strides in that direction could be made, especially ones based on solid oxide fuel cell progress. One growing fear I have had this year, however, is that, with the cost of natural gas being so low and the explosion of shale drilling in what was formerly considered coal country, support for coal-oriented utility-scale SOFC projects would disappear.

I still think that is a possibility in the long run, but I am quite happy that the DOE (via the agency’s National Energy Technology Lab) recently announced that it was putting up $3.5 million, which is to be matched by another $0.9 million) toward support for seven projects. The seven projects are divided into two distinct areas: cathode durability (three projects) and improved electrochemical performance (four projects). Many of the seven will place heavy emphasis on achieving advancements by means of computational methods.

The projects include (with approximately $500,000 going to each):

Georgia Tech (cathode durability)—Design new materials and electrode structures to mitigate the stability issues caused by humidity, CO2, chrome and other contaminants from other cell components.

University of Maryland (cathode durability)—Complementing the work at Georgia Tech (above), develop theory to explain microstructural and compositional cathode performance degradation due to humidity, CO2, chrome and other contaminants.

University of Connecticut (cathode durability)—Use traditional experimentation and computational methods to understand and evaluate gradation in lanthanum manganite-based cathode electrodes.

Boston University (PDF) (improved electrochemical performance)—Using experimentation and computation tools, demonstrate a 50 percent improvement in maximum power densities via newer cathode and electrocatalyst materials.

Stanford University (improved electrochemical performance)—Evaluate and improve performance of heterostructured cathodes “by directly modifying the chemistry and structure of the nanoscale oxygen reduction active surface sites.”

University of Wisconsin–Madison (improved electrochemical performance)—Develop perovskite-based cathodes with enhanced oxygen reduction activity, aiming for higher power density SOFC operation at lower temperatures.

West Virginia University (improved electrochemical performance)—Develop highly active, stable intermediate temperature SOFC cathodes.

DOE frames this work as being aligned with the utility-scale goals of the largely coal-oriented Solid State Energy Conversion Alliance (e.g., over 50 percent conversion efficiencies, CO2 capture and reduced water consumption).