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Breakthroughs Magazine

Solutions Update

Powering the future—SECA fuel cells

With no end in sight to soaring fuel prices, finding solutions to our nation's energy needs is becoming increasingly critical. Fuel cells will play an important role in the solution, but to gain widespread public acceptance, they must be affordable.

The Solid State Energy Conversion Alliance, or SECA, is a unique collaboration between industry and research organizations that is focused on making affordable low-cost solid oxide fuel cells, SOFCs, a reality. SECA is coordinated by Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and the National Energy Technology Laboratory, NETL.

Solid State Energy Conversion Alliance

Although fuel cells have the potential to provide efficient, clean electrical energy using both hydrogen and fossil fuels, they are currently too costly to enjoy widespread use. SECA's goal is to make a fuel cell that can be used for diverse applications, thereby bringing costs down. "We are working on a modular fuel cell design that can be customized for specific applications and then mass-produced," said Gary McVay, who manages PNNL's role in SECA. "Our fuel cells can be adapted to provide power for land-based, transportation, and military applications."

The SECA program is composed of six industry teams using varied approaches to create a fuel cell that will meet U.S. Department of Energy cost and performance goals while also meeting their own specific needs. In addition, leading researchers in industry, academia and at national laboratories support the industry teams with cutting-edge research and development through the Core Technology Program. As the industry teams identify research issues, they bring these challenges to the Core Technology Program for innovative solutions that are shared with all the teams.

SECA's unique program of cooperation between industry and research organizations has resulted in impressive gains during the program's first stage—technology development. For example, industry teams have increased fuel cell performance by developing a design that will use fuel more efficiently. One of the successes of the Core Technology Program has been the development of predictive models that can evaluate fuel cell performance based on the design and materials used and point out problem areas that need to be changed before the fuel cell is manufactured. These predictive models have saved countless time and money in shortening the fuel cell development program.

"As SECA moves into the pre-commercialization phase, we'll be focusing on refining our modular fuel cell design to make it more easily customized for diverse applications, more affordable and more reliable," McVay said.

As SECA transitions into its next phase, cost-sharing will shift. The U.S. government has funded the majority of the technology development stage, but as the technology is readied for commercialization and potential profits, industry will increase its funding support of SECA to better reflect this shift in focus.

The SOFC being developed by SECA is part of several national energy programs, including FutureGen, which aims to create the power plant of the future, a facility that produces electricity with near-zero emissions and supplies hydrogen to help meet the nation's energy needs. The SECA fuel cell, with its high efficiency, fuel flexibility and ability to operate over a range of temperatures, is also key in the 21st Century Truck Program. Fuel cells will produce electricity for the truck's auxiliary and essential power systems, significantly increasing overall efficiency and reducing emissions caused by idling engines.

The U.S. Department of Defense is now developing a prototype, based on SECA fuel cell technology, that could provide power to remote military bases. Fuel cells are efficient energy producers that can use military fuels, are quieter than generators and hold up in harsh environments.

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