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Fuel cell technology is a unique form of energy creation—an efficient, quiet, and clean method of transforming an energy source (such as propane, diesel, or natural gas) into electricity.

Traditional fossil-fuel power generation technology produce energy through combustion—harnessing the energy of a chemical reaction to power the mechanical processes that produce electricity. This is often a noisy process, and produces exhausts and toxic fumes that must be carefully contained.

Fuel cells, in comparison, transform their energy sources into electricity through a direct chemical process, effectively converting fuel into energy with little byproducts or waste.

There are a variety of types of fuel cells, though they are all comprised of the same make-up: an electrolyte, an anode, and a cathode. Because the main difference between fuel cells is the electrolyte, fuel cells are consequentially classified by the type of electrolyte used. At the National Energy Technology Laboratory, an extensive research program has been developed to refine, hone, and advance a specific type of fuel cell that uses a solid ceramic material as its electrolyte—Solid Oxide Fuel Cells (SOFCs).

NETL researchers within the SOFC program are tirelessly working to make SOFCs an affordable, integral part of America’s energy future. The fuel cells are promising options for large-scale energy generation, but work must be done to optimize the technology—creating systems that are bigger, have more endurance and power density, and are cost-competitive relative to conventional technologies.

Recently, the Department of Energy (DOE) awarded NETL funding through the Technology Commercialization Fund (TCF) to support this effort.

The TCF is a funding opportunity available for research and development projects aimed at maturing promising energy technologies and push them towards successful commercialization. DOE believes that TCF funding will increase the number of energy technologies developed at DOE’s national labs that graduate to commercial development and achieve commercial impact, as well as enhance the current approach towards lab-industry partnerships.

The NETL SOFC project being funded is a cooperative development project between NETL and Atrex Energy with the goal of optimizing an electrode engineering process.

NETL has developed a single-step nanofabrication process for infiltrating an electrocatalyst into the porous electrode of the SOFC. Previous methods required multiple heat-treatment steps to deliver an adequate amount of catalyst. Industry partners have performed full-scale testing to demonstrate that the materials and nanostructure resulting from this fabrication process are more advanced than traditional electrode, with benefits including an increase in initial power density, reduction of electrode degradation, and a doubling of the cell lifetime. The method has been filed for patent application, and promises to both greatly improve upon current processes and eventually lead to commercial-scale manufacturing of advanced SOFC (electrodes).

Ultimately, this process could make the deployment of SOFCs into the commercial market fiscally feasible by improving the reliability of SOFCs with inexpensive materials.

Advancing SOFC technology to be suitable for commercial applications is an important goal of NETL’s SOFC program. Working with industry partners, like Atrex Energy, and securing funding through programs like the TCF is vital to that mission. SOFC technology has the potential to become an important element of our Nation’s energy future and NETL has the facilities, researchers, and dedication to see that promise fulfilled.