NETL: News Release - Pyrochlore Catalyst: Helping the Trucking Industry Meet Anti-idling Regulations
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Release Date: December 1, 2011

Pyrochlore Catalyst: Helping the Trucking Industry Meet Anti-idling Regulations

It may sound like a technology that would be tough to comprehend, but NETL’s new pyrochlore catalyst can help solve a problem that isn’t at all hard to understand: engine idling in the long-haul trucking industry.

A vial of diesel fuel and a vial of NETL?s pyrochlore catalyst are pictured with a monolith structure to which the catalyst will be applied. The pyrochlore catalyst is poised to help the trucking industry meet anti-idling regulations.

A vial of diesel fuel and a vial of NETL’s pyrochlore catalyst are pictured with a monolith structure to which the catalyst will be applied. The pyrochlore catalyst is poised to help the trucking industry meet anti-idling regulations.

We learned about catalysts in our high school science classes. They’re substances that jump-start chemical reactions and often increase the speed and efficiency of those reactions. Over time, a catalyst can become damaged. Other elements that surround it seep in and “poison” it, or they coat it like a layer of dust. In either case, the catalyst gradually loses its ability to affect the reaction and must be replaced. So, what’s special about the pyrochlore catalyst? NETL is proving that it can help transform heavy-carbon fuels, like diesel, into syngas more cheaply and for much longer periods than any other catalyst currently on the market.

It’s an important breakthrough,because if we can easily transform a fuel like diesel into a syngas, we can start using solid oxide fuel cells for everyday power.

 

How Solid Oxide Fuel Cells Can Aid the Trucking Industry

It’s nearly midnight, and a long-haul trucker pulls into a rest area off the interstate, north bound from New Mexico to Oregon. Long-time federal regulations require the driver to rest for the night. After all, she’s been on the road nearly 11 hours. New state regulations also require her to shut down the truck’s engine instead of letting it idle to provide power to the cab while she sleeps.

So, the tucker pulls out a half-gallon of diesel fuel and fills the rig’s auxiliary power unit. The diesel flows into a component that transforms it into hydrogen-rich syngas—in a process called fuel reforming—and the syngas flows into a solid-oxide fuel cell. In the fuel cell, the gas reacts with air and the power unit makes electricity. Amazingly, the unit is silent, except for a small air blower, and its “exhaust” is nothing more than water and carbon dioxide.

That’s what a solid-oxide fuel cell can do for the trucking industry: create auxiliary power using only half the fuel that’s currently required by a traditional power generator with almost no noise or by-products.

The Anti-idling Dilemma

Auxiliary power units can help truckers meet anti-idling regulations. However, the weight and expense of additional batteries?and the low-efficiency and noise associated with small internal combustion engines?make it hard for industry to adopt them. Solid oxide fuel cells could be the answer.

Auxiliary power units can help truckers meet anti-idling regulations. However, the weight and expense of additional batteries—and the low-efficiency and noise associated with small internal combustion engines—make it hard for industry to adopt them. Solid oxide fuel cells could be the answer.

More than 2 million over-the-road diesel trucks haul goods across the United States every day, with an estimated 275,000 new trucks added every year. Engine idling consumes over 1 billion gallons of diesel fuel annually and releases an estimated 11 million tons of carbon dioxide, 180,000 tons of nitrous oxide, and 5,000 tons of particulate matter. (U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration)

The sheer immensity of these statistics has prompted more than half of U.S. states to adopt anti-idling regulations. However, truckers need power in their cabs during rest periods for electrical devices like lights and the all-important HVAC. One option is the installation of separate auxiliary power units into the cabs of these rigs.

Traditional power generators emit similar exhaust fumes to a truck’s engine, and they’re noisy. Solid-oxide fuel cells can provide auxiliary power more cheaply, cleanly, and quietly than can auxiliary power units based on internal combustion engines. But, they need syngas to operate, and right now syngas is hard to come by on the road.

This is where the pyrochlore catalyst comes in. Researchers at NETL, URS Corporation, and Louisiana State University have incorporated rhodium, a precious metal commonly used in today’s reforming catalysts for light-carbon fuels, into the pyrochlore crystal structure and applied the catalyst to a monolith support like the one pictured above. Using this system, diesel fuel bought at a roadside gas station can be reformed into syngas, which can power solid oxide fuel cells in auxiliary power units.

This image shows the general formulation of the pyrochlore crystal structure: A2B2O7. A and B are metals incorporated into the structure in various combinations. This means the pyrochlore catalyst can be customized to reform a range of fuels under varying conditions.

This image shows the general formulation of the pyrochlore crystal structure: A2B2O7. A and B are metals incorporated into the structure in various combinations. This means the pyrochlore catalyst can be customized to reform a range of fuels under varying conditions.

Methods for generating syngas from simple hydrocarbons, like methane, have been around for many years. But NETL’s pyrochlore catalyst is the first catalyst shown to be highly effective in reforming diesel and other heavy-carbon fuels.

The pyrochlore structure is durable. It withstands poisoning by the high levels of sulfur and aromatics present in heavy-carbon fuels, as well as the intense heat of the chemical reaction, for much longer periods than current catalysts, giving it a much longer life. It also allows the catalyst to effectively operate using only a fraction of the rhodium typically needed. Thus, the cost of the catalyst is expected to be low compared to catalysts available today.

Getting Pyrochlore to Market

The pyrochlore catalyst and the solid oxide fuel cells it can help power haven’t yet made it to market, but they’re on the way.

NETL has licensed its new catalyst to Pyrochem Catalyst Company, a start-up founded to develop market-ready diesel fuel reforming technologies based on it. Solid oxide fuel cells are on the brink of commercialization, as well, thanks to research conducted by NETL and other organizations over the last decade. Breaking into the market through auxiliary power units for the trucking industry can help these fuel cells penetrate the power-generation industry to supply efficient, economical, low-pollution power.

Concerns about pollutant emissions and fuel efficiency for various types of water craft have been growing. Several companies are evaluating fuel cell propulsion as a means for meeting that industry?s needs.

Concerns about pollutant emissions and fuel efficiency for various types of water craft have been growing. Several companies are evaluating fuel cell propulsion as a means for meeting that industry’s needs.

Solid oxide fuel cells can be as small as a store-bought power generator, so they could replace traditional generators in recreational vehicles, like motorhomes and small watercraft, and for emergency or off-grid power in homes and businesses. Scaled up, they can power hospitals, residential complexes, and other mid-size structures, and produce electricity through central generation power plants that integrate fuel cells into their systems.

America’s armed forces are interested in fuel cells, as well. Because fuel makes up as much as 70 percent of the weight a mobile unit must carry, halving a unit’s fuel requirements would make a significant difference in its operations. Solid oxide fuel cells are easier to camouflage, too, because they’re nearly silent and they give off low infrared radiation—a.k.a., heat.

 

Making Fuel Cells a World-Wide Power Option

An array of fuels can be reformed into syngas to power fuel cells. Fuel cells can then produce electricity for the military, our nation?s transportation fleet, and homes, businesses, schools, and hospitals.

An array of fuels can be reformed into syngas to power fuel cells. Fuel cells can then produce electricity for the military, our nation’s transportation fleet, and homes, businesses, schools, and hospitals.

Fuel cells can produce electricity with twice the efficiency of conventional systems while conserving resources and reducing pollution. They have been used reliably for decades in space missions where compact, highly efficient power generation is critical, but they have not begun to realize their potential for everyday energy applications.

For fuel cells to gain broad market acceptance, they must demonstrate their viability. With anti-Idling legislation being enacted across the country, the auxiliary power unit market for diesel truck transport can become that proving ground. 

To make fuel cells available to that market, the pyrochlore catalyst is poised to overcome the final technical barrier in solid oxide fuel cell development: the easy conversion of readily available fuels like diesel into syngas. Ultimately, NETL’s pyrochlore catalyst may also become the key enabling technology to jump-starting world-wide acceptance of fuel cell technologies for everyday power generation.