Solid Oxide Fuel Cells

Fuel cells have been well known for a long time, but until now, they have not been nearly as popular as science fiction writers always hoped. One reason: they are inherently more costly than most other energy sources.

But now old style fuel cells, including proton exchange membranes (PEMs), phosphoric acid fuel cells (PAFCs), and molten carbonate fuel cells (MCFCs) are giving way to a new technology: solid oxide fuel cells (SOFCs).

SOFCs hold much promise for a more reliable, most cost-effective way to produce electricity right where it is consumed, instead of at some centralized source that requires expensive and cumbersome transmission lines.

SOFCs utilize relatively low cost ceramic materials, and run at extremely high electrical efficiencies. As a result, SOFCs offer a new level of cost-effectiveness that is attracting considerable attention from engineers, facility managers, and power companies.

One problem is that SOFCs need to operated and extremely high temperature (800°C and above). While this high operating temperature permits extremely high electrical efficiency, and increases flexibility as to fuels, it makes SOFCs a lot more difficult to deploy near electrical consumers in such locations as homes, schools, and small business settings.

Nevertheless, recent breakthroughs are beginning to offer a light at the end of the SOFC development tunnel.

One SOFC developer, Bloom Energy, now offers a distributed generation system of SOFCs that promises clean, reliable, and affordable electricity, 24 hours per day, 365 days per year, with faster payback than comparable systems and important benefits for sustainability and environmental protection.

Dubbed "energy servers," each of these devices is made up of thousands of SOFC technology fuel cells. They look like flat, solid ceramic squares. Each of these fuel cell can produce about 25 watts of electricity. By sandwiching the cells into cohesive arrays, a single energy server is capable of producing enough electricity to power an American home.

By bundling many of these arrays into "power modules", an energy server can be assembled into a complete system capable of powering an entire industrial or office building. Multiple energy servers can be ganged together to meet even larger power requirements.

This modular design makes it easier to install a self-contained power generation system wherever it might be needed (and wherever a suitable fuel source, such as natural gas, can be made available). Because the energy server is built up from small components, it is inherently redundant and unlikely to "fail" in a way that completely interrupts the smooth delivery of electrical power. When a repair becomes necessary, one part of the energy server can be shut down and serviced while the remaining 'power modules' continue to provide electricity.

Where in your life would a SOFC power source be of most value?

For more information on SOFC technology and their applications in home, industrial, and business settings, contact: Bloom Energy.

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Photo credit: Bloom Energy