Picture a fuel cell for a moment. If you can, chances are you’re imagining a hydrogen-powered fuel cell, most noted for their potential to power vehicles emitting only harmless water. Professor Eric Wachsman, director of the University of Maryland Energy Research Center, is spreading news of the hydrogen fuel cell’s lesser known cousin – the solid oxide fuel cell (SOFC) – which he argues holds the immediate energy solution. Certainly Bloom Energy has been making inroads with its version of the SOFC.
According to Wachsman, our fixation on hydrogen fuel cells for cars has delayed funding efforts for all fuel cells research, since building an infrastructure to support people driving around and refueling with hydrogen categorized it as a ‘future technology.’ He says, “Hydrogen-based fuel cells are the technology that has gotten all of the press and as a result we’re still waiting for a future hydrogen infrastructure. Yes, fuel cells can run off hydrogen, but they don’t have to.”
Much more versatile, solid oxide fuel cells can oxidize any fuel so they can utilize the existing infrastructure for regular gasoline, diesel, and natural gas, and later on use biofuels and hydrogen once readily available. The one (big) downside is that SOFCs really like heat – and currently can only operate at 1500 degrees Fahrenheit (versus 180 degrees needed for a hydrogen fuel cell) so they are more suited for stationary power generation, instead of cars. However, once heated up SOFCs produce three kilowatts of energy per kilogram of material – more energy than an internal combustion engine produces, and only one third the size.
The current U.S. Department of Energy 2012 budget focuses on hydrogen fuel cells and does not currently contain funding for the SOFC program, Wachsman said. And he called that a missed opportunity: “We don’t have to wait for hydrogen. SOFCs represent a solution for everything that you can think of in terms of producing electricity and power today.”