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Breakthroughs Magazine

Special Report - Creative Energy: PNNL researchers are generating real-world solutions to a global problem

Fuel cell prototypes exceed expectations

Fuel prices continue to rise. However, one solution—fuel cells—is gaining on that problem. The Solid State Energy Conversion Alliance (SECA) has achieved the first of a three-part goal: developing solid oxide fuel cell systems that reduce fuel cell production costs by a factor of ten.

SECA is a collaboration between industry, academia and other research organizations to develop modular, low-cost, fuel-flexible solid oxide fuel cell (SOFC) systems that can operate on coal gas, natural gas, hydrogen, and liquid fuels. SECA is led by Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and the National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) and funded through the Department of Energy's Office of Fossil Energy.

"With this goal accomplished, we can now proceed to the second step—refining our modular fuel cell design to make it more easily customized for diverse commercial applications," said Gary McVay, who manages PNNL's role in SECA.

Although fuel cells are considered a potential solution to the nation's energy problems, they currently are too expensive for widespread use. By developing a fuel cell for diverse applications, the SECA team intends to reduce costs. Potential applications include military, transportation and land-based power generation.

Manufactured with a scalable mass-production technique, the first-phase SOFC prototypes exceed all of SECA's Phase I targets for performance degradation, efficiency, endurance and production cost.

The SECA program involves six industry teams using varied approaches to design a fuel cell that will meet DOE 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.

(Photo caption: Scientists at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory are developing materials and techniques used to fabricate solid oxide fuel cells. This test of a "button" cell will help select electrode materials for full-sized cells.)

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