Energy IQ: What is a solid oxide fuel cell and how fuel cells work

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July 20, 1969 might not immediately ring a bell, but what if we were to give you a hint by saying the word "Apollo?" 

Yes, that was the date humans first landed on the moon as a part of the Apollo 11 mission. Most of us remember details such as the images of astronauts on the Moon’s surface, and Neil Armstrong’s reaction, “That's one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.” Yet many don’t know how the spacecraft obtained its electrical power through this historical mission.

Fuel cells were NASA’s answer to this challenge, as Apollo spacecraft carried three hydrogen-fuel cells to provide electricity for all the equipment. Each of these fuel cell modules had 31 individual fuel cells stacked together 1.

Over 50 years later, fuel cells today are used in a variety of applications ranging from vehicles to data centers. Let’s focus on solid oxide fuel cells and answer four common questions to boost your energy IQ.

Question No. 1: What is a solid oxide fuel cell?

Simply put, all fuel cells are energy converters; they convert energy from one form to another. More specifically, fuel cells convert the chemical energy stored in the fuel to electric and thermal energy (heat), without the need for combustion. Engines and power plants also convert energy from one form to another, but they rely on combustion, which reduces the overall efficiency of the energy conversion.

Solid oxide fuel cells are one of the many types of fuel cells and produce electricity, water, heat and small amounts of carbon dioxide using natural gas as the fuel.  

Question No. 2: How does a solid oxide fuel cell work? 

Electricity is the movement of electrons, and all elements (hydrogen, oxygen and others) have varying numbers of electrons. 

Solid Oxide Fuel Cells - Electricity
Solid oxide fuel cells produce electricity, movement of electrons. 

A solid oxide fuel cell utilizes the movement of electrons and generates electricity in few basic steps.

  1. Natural gas goes through a steam-reforming process. This chemical reaction produces hydrogen (H2), carbon monoxide (CO), carbon dioxide (CO2) and steam (H2O). There will be some unreformed natural gas left in the mix as well.
  2. The mix of elements from the reformer enter the fuel cell at the anode side. Meanwhile, air (including oxygen) enters the fuel cell at the cathode side. 
  3. Oxygen in the air combines with free electrons to form oxide ions at the cathode. Oxide ions with free electrons travel from the cathode to the anode through the electrolyte.
  4. At the anode, oxide ions react with hydrogen forming water (steam) and with carbon monoxide (CO) forming carbon dioxide (CO2).  
  5. Reactions covered on Step #4 release free electrons. These free electrons travel to cathode through the external electrical circuit, producing electricity.

Question No. 3: What are the differences between solid oxide and proton exchange membrane fuel cells?

Proton exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cells, also known as hydrogen fuel cells, and solid oxide fuel cells share the same basic operating principles yet have many differences. Here are two of these differences impacting how these technologies are being used today. 

Types of fuel cells
Comparison of four primary types of fuel cells. 
  • Fuel : PEM fuel cells use pure hydrogen (H2) as fuel. Meanwhile, solid oxide fuel cells can use hydrocarbon fuels such as natural gas, methane and propane to produce electricity. 
  • Size: While a single cell of a PEM fuel cell and a solid oxide fuel cell don’t differ significantly in size, the size difference comes into play when a fuel cell module is assembled together. A typical PEM fuel cell module would be smaller than a solid oxide fuel cell module. This makes PEM fuel cells a good candidate for transportation applications ranging from trucks and buses to trains and boats. 

Question No. 4: Why do we need solid oxide fuel cells?

The benefits of solid oxide fuel cells vary depending upon the application but two benefits remain consistent across applications. 

  1. High efficiency delivers environmental and financial benefits: Electrical efficiency of solid oxide fuel cells reach up to 60% 2. This means 60% of the energy stored in the fuel is converted to useful electrical energy. This is much higher than the efficiencies of coal power plants. Moreover, the use of excess heat produced by the fuel cell for heating purposes in a cogeneration application will further increase the overall efficiency over 80%. Additionally, since fuel cells could be located locally, they eliminate the inefficiencies associated with distribution losses from large central power plants.

    This high efficiency delivers financial benefits and minimizes the environmental footprint, since solid oxide fuel cells commonly use natural gas as fuel in comparison to traditional power plants using coal as fuel. Solid oxide fuel cells also don’t emit sulphur oxides and particulate matter.
     
  2. Modular design brings scalability: The individual fuel cells are bundled together to form a stack. These stacks are then combined with other equipment to form modules. These individual power generation modules can be paralleled to form the fuel cell power system. You can add more fuel cell modules to the overall system as you need. This provides financial flexibility for the user to align the power generation investments with business needs.

Microgrids and fuel cells to energy storage devices, our energy future includes a diverse set of technologies and fuels, and Cummins is committed to innovating and delivering a variety of power solutions to meet these diverse needs of customers. 

Sign up below for Energy IQ to periodically receive relevant insights and trends about energy markets. To learn more about distributed generation solutions Cummins offers, visit our webpage.

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References: 

1 Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. (n.d.). Apollo to the Moon, About the Spacecraft [Web page]. Retrieved from https://airandspace.si.edu/
2 U.S. Energy Department, Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy . (n.d.). Comparison of Fuel Cell Technologies [Table]. Retrieved from https://www.energy.gov/

 

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Aytek Yuksel - Cummins Inc

Aytek Yuksel

Aytek Yuksel is the Content Marketing Leader for Cummins Inc., with a focus on Power Systems markets. Aytek joined the Company in 2008. Since then, he has worked in several marketing roles and now brings you the learnings from our key markets ranging from industrial to residential markets. Aytek lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and two kids.

5 businesses that can benefit from selling Cummins generators

Cummins dealer discussing home generator

Ninety percent of American business are small- and medium-size. They are the true engines of our economy, employing millions of workers. With many of them looking for new ways to expand their services, generate income and grow their businesses, Cummins home standby and portable generators could be a new source of revenue. 

A Silver Lining in Dark Clouds

According to the Associated Press, power outages from severe weather have doubled over the past two decades, straining our country’s aging power grid. This has increased the frequency and duration of power outages. These frequent outages create a need for reliable backup power for households and other businesses. And for enterprising small- and medium-size businesses, satisfying this need with Cummins generators is a huge opportunity.   

Which businesses could benefit the most from becoming Cummins authorized dealers? Here are our top five:

1. General Contractors — When natural disasters such as ice storms, hurricanes, high winds, forest fires or earthquakes hit, lost power isn’t the only challenge customers face. There is often physical damage to property that must be repaired. When they are helping customers to rebuild, general contractors have an opportunity to estimate home or business’s energy needs and suggest adding a Cummins QuietConnect™ Home Standby Generator. If the customer agrees, the general contractor not only profits from the sale of the generator, but also the labor to install it.

2. Electricians — A good electrician is a trusted source of information. Not only are they experts with the flow of electrons, they often know their customer’s specific electrical setups. After a prolonged power outage, many are often asked “Is there anything you can do to keep my electricity on the next time the power goes out?” Electricians who sell and install Cummins QuietConnect Home Standby Generators can say, “Yes, yes there is.” Installing home standby generators can be another valuable service that electricians provide.

3. Heating & Cooling Contractors — During a power outage, one of the most critical systems knocked offline for home and business owners is their central heating and cooling system. Going without heat or cool air for a long period of time is not only uncomfortable, it can be dangerous if the temperatures are extreme outside. So, naturally, once power is restored, finding a way to keep the HVAC system on during the next power outage becomes top-of-mind. Since heating and cooling contractors are experts at installing large systems in homes and businesses, adding Cummins QuietConnect standby generators to homes and businesses is a natural way to add another profit center to their businesses.

4. Online Retailers — Up until now, we’ve been discussing standby generators. For businesses that don’t specialize in installing generators permanently into place, Cummins portable generators can be a moneymaker.  While portable generators can be used during power outages, they are better suited to smaller tasks due to their portability. This makes them ideal for camping, tailgating, construction worksites and more. With Cummins’ rugged and reliable reputation, our portable generators are ideal for retailers focused on these market segments.

5. Solar Panel Installers — Most home solar panels are connected directly to the power grid. So, when the power goes out, the solar panels stop providing power. For a backup source of electricity, solar panel installers can either install a solar battery backup, which gets charged by the solar panels, or a home standby generator. Typically, solar battery backups can only power a home for a few hours, so if an area is prone to weather-related outages, a home standby generator such as the Cummins QuietConnect is the better choice.

The Time is Now

With more people than ever looking for backup power generation, now’s a great time to expand your company’s offerings by becoming a Cummins authorized dealer. To learn more visit, cummins.com/partners/dealers.

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Cummins Inc.

Cummins, a global power technology leader, is a corporation of complementary business segments that design, manufacture, distribute and service a broad portfolio of power solutions. The company’s products range from internal combustion, electric and hybrid integrated power solutions and components including filtration, aftertreatment, turbochargers, fuel systems, controls systems, air handling systems, automated transmissions, electric power generation systems, microgrid controls, batteries, electrolyzers and fuel cell products.

Ten ways to prepare for rolling blackouts

Cummins service disconnect box mounted on side of house

Heat waves that cause excessive demand for electricity…droughts that make hydropower less available…power grids near active wildfires shut down for safety…aging, overstressed power grids…high winds that snap powerlines…these are all reasons why some parts of the country may face planned power outages this year.  

If you live in an area prone to rolling blackouts, here are some tips to help you ready your family for them: 

  • Sign up for notifications from your local electricity utility — If this service is available from your local utility, it can give you a warning to start preparing before the power goes out. 
  • Download our Power Outage Ultimate Checklist — It provides in-depth information about what to do before, during and after an outage. It even shows you what to do for children, pets and family members with medical needs. You can download it here
  • Stockpile nonperishable food and water — Make sure you have a manual can opener, too. Plan to have enough for everyone so your family can stay hydrated and nourished during the blackout. 
  • Make or purchase ice and coolers — If you have enough warning, make or purchase ice so you can pack some of your perishable food in coolers to preserve it. (A refrigerator will only maintain its internal temperature for about four hours, a freezer for about 48 hours.) 
  • Buy flashlights and extra batteries — Blackouts can be, well, black. Flashlights can be used for safety if you need to move around at night but use them sparingly. Make sure you have enough for every family member.
  • Keep mobile phones charged and gas tanks full — Your phones and your vehicles are your lifelines to the outside world. If you have an EV, make sure it’s fully charged. 
  • Practice manually opening garage doors — If you need to drive somewhere, you first need to be able to get your car out of the garage. 
  • Plan for medications that require refrigeration — You may need to store them in a cooler like your refrigerated food until the power returns. 
  • Invest in a whole-home standby generator — For the ultimate peace of mind, consider one of the Cummins QuietConnect™ home standby generators. In the event of a power outage, your generator will automatically switch on and keep your home powered.  
  • Install carbon monoxide detectors with battery backups — Place them in central locations on every floor so if any carbon monoxide gets in the home, you are immediately alerted. 

Rolling blackouts seem to be becoming more and more common. Fortunately, there are ways to plan ahead and keep them from completely disrupting your life. To see the different ways that Cummins can help your family keep the power on during these planned power outages, visit us at cummins.com/na/generators/home-standby/whole-house-and-portable or find a local dealer at cummins.com/na/generators/home-standby/find-a-dealer

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Cummins Inc.

Cummins, a global power technology leader, is a corporation of complementary business segments that design, manufacture, distribute and service a broad portfolio of power solutions. The company’s products range from internal combustion, electric and hybrid integrated power solutions and components including filtration, aftertreatment, turbochargers, fuel systems, controls systems, air handling systems, automated transmissions, electric power generation systems, microgrid controls, batteries, electrolyzers and fuel cell products.

Cummins Turbo Technologies gears up to launch the 8th Generation Holset Series 400 Variable Geometry Turbocharger

8th generation HE400VGT

As emission regulations become more stringent, Cummins Turbo Technologies (CTT) is committed to helping customers reduce emissions and advance fuel economy through innovative new air handling technologies.

Built on 70 years of innovation and dependability, CTT and Holset have introduced a wide range of industry leading air handling technologies. In 2021, CTT launched the 7th generation 400 series Variable Geometry Turbocharger (VGT) to help engine manufacturers meet future emission standards and offer best in class fuel economy. At Cummins, innovation never stops as we continue to advance our current technologies, while developing new ones. With this philosophy in mind, CTT is now preparing to introduce the 8th generation HE400VGT. It is specifically engineered to have top of class performance, reliability and durability for the 10-15L heavy-duty truck market.  

CTT has made significant improvements in turbocharger performance with its latest generation of products. The 8th generation turbocharger will have 5 percent improved efficiency over the previous 7th generation turbo.

In addition to offering improved turbocharger efficiency, which helps customers in engine downsizing, the HE400VGT will have a better transient response, enhanced compressor side oil leak robustness and dual sourcing on key components for supply chain flexibility.

Key highlights of the Holset HE400VGT include a new bearing system and near zero clearances to enhance performance and transient response. These enhancements are achieved by tighter clearances on the compressor stage, lower radial movement on the turbine stage, improved surface finish and new aero designs.

Scheduled to be launched in 2024, this turbocharger incorporates a next generation smart electric actuator and speed sensor with the latest chipset to enhance performance and durability. The dual sourcing strategy helps mitigate any unforeseen electronics shortages that have recently plagued the industry.

Along with the performance enhancements, the latest generation turbocharger will offer best-in-class performance for on-highway heavy-duty trucks coupled with improved fuel economy at key vehicle running points.

“CTT has incorporated exciting new technologies in our latest HE400VGT to help engine customers meet strict emissions requirements and reduce their total cost of ownership,” said Matthew Franklin, Director – Product Management & Marketing. As customers establish their strategies for upcoming emission regulations, CTT continues to build on the success of previous turbocharger launches to deliver innovative products that meet the challenges of our customers’ engine development needs without compromising on performance. 

Want to learn more about CTT’s products and technical innovation? Sign up for our quarterly newsletter today.

Cummins Office Building

Cummins Inc.

Cummins, a global power technology leader, is a corporation of complementary business segments that design, manufacture, distribute and service a broad portfolio of power solutions. The company’s products range from internal combustion, electric and hybrid integrated power solutions and components including filtration, aftertreatment, turbochargers, fuel systems, controls systems, air handling systems, automated transmissions, electric power generation systems, microgrid controls, batteries, electrolyzers and fuel cell products.

Rebuild masterstroke pays off for miners

belt buckle with text reading "Cummins 300th QSK60 MCRS Upgrade"

A masterstroke by Cummins engineers in Australia and the US has resulted in major cost reduction and environmental benefits for mining companies electing to rebuild their QSK60 engines under a special upgrade program.

The engineers focused on rebuild possibilities for the early generation QSK60, and how it could be upgraded to the latest diesel technology at overhaul time with no major change to the base 60-litre V16 design – a feat that eluded other engine manufacturers.

The key technology upgrade is to fuel injection, with the early unit injection system (HPI) replaced with the high-pressure modular common rail system (MCRS) that is now featured on all of Cummins’ latest generation high horsepower engines.

The 300th upgraded engine, rated at 2700 hp, recently rolled off the production line at the Cummins Master Rebuild Centre in Brisbane, highlighting yet another successful step in the evolution of the QSK60 and why it is the foremost high-horsepower diesel engine globally in mobile mining equipment.

“Reduced fuel consumption and longer life-to-overhaul are keys to lower total cost of ownership, and they were the initial aims behind the engineering of the upgrade program for the QSK60,” says Greg Field, mining business development manager for Cummins Asia Pacific.

“Innovation is at the core of Cummins’ long history, and it has certainly played its part in the QSK60 rebuild options we can offer our mining customers.”

The bottom line is impressive: Diesel particulate emissions are slashed by up to 63% through in-cylinder combustion technology with no aftertreatment. There’s also a plus for maintenance with less soot loading in the oil.

Fuel savings up to 5% are consistently reported in the field for significant greenhouse gas emissions reduction, while life-to-overhaul is extended by 10%, translating to fuel consumption of more than 4.0 million liters before rebuild is required.

Apart from the fuel system upgrade to MCRS, the QSK60 with single-stage turbocharging also features other Cummins innovations in combustion technology that were engineered for Tier 4 Final and Stage V emissions compliance, the most stringent off-highway emission standards in the world.

The rebuild upgrade package can be applied to the two variants of the QSK60 – one with single-stage turbocharging (known as ‘Advantage’) which can be rated from 1785 to 2700 hp, the other with two-stage turbocharging which can be rated at 2700, 2850 or 3000 hp.

The 300th upgraded QSK60 went to Boggabri Coal in the NSW Gunnedah Basin for installation in a Komatsu 930E haul truck. The engine has proved its worth in both coal and iron ore mining in Australia.

yellow QSK60 engine

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Cummins Inc.

Cummins, a global power technology leader, is a corporation of complementary business segments that design, manufacture, distribute and service a broad portfolio of power solutions. The company’s products range from internal combustion, electric and hybrid integrated power solutions and components including filtration, aftertreatment, turbochargers, fuel systems, controls systems, air handling systems, automated transmissions, electric power generation systems, microgrid controls, batteries, electrolyzers and fuel cell products.

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