Fuel cells have come a long way since they were first successfully demonstrated in the early 19th century by Humphry Davy. They were first heavily used for outer space missions, including the Apollo 11 flight in 1969, which not only carried the first man to the moon but also three fuel cell stacks to power all the equipment in the space module.
Each decade since has seen fuel cells advance, as commercialization in a variety of applications accelerated. The new millennium also saw a resurgence of interest in fuel cell capabilities due to the increased concerns over carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions of traditional energy production.
Cummins has long been at the forefront of low-carbon technologies with the goal of reducing emissions, and we have been researching fuel cells for more than 20 years. In addition to offering Proton Exchange Membrane (PEM) fuel cells and electrolyzer technology, we are also working on the next step towards clean, reliable power sources with solid oxide fuel cells (SOFCs).
Which industries are SOFCs most suitable for?
Solid oxide fuel cells (SOFCs) are suitable for a variety of industries that may want to generate on-site power to achieve greater energy resiliency and lower emissions. These include commercial, industrial and institutional facilities (i.e., data centers, grocery stores and universities, etc.). SOFCs can also be centralized as fuel cell power plants where utilities sell the energy on to end customers as part of their power generation portfolio.
Why would a customer choose SOFCs over other technologies?
Generally, SOFCs are a more energy efficient option compared to traditional energy production sources and offer greater flexibility in the type of fuel that can be used. A number of fuel options include natural gas, propane, ammonia, hydrogen, hydrogen-blended gas and biogas. Even when using a carbon-based fuel like natural gas, SOFCs produce lower levels of carbon dioxide compared to traditional generators. This is due to the lack of combustion. Lack of moving parts also allow the fuel cell system to operate quieter with more reliability, making SOFCs a desirable power source for busy city centers.
Several fuel cells can be combined, or “stacked,” to achieve a high kW output from a single fuel cell module. A single fuel cell has the approximate thickness of a No. 2 pencil eraser (5mm) and produces a limited amount of power (a few watts). Because several fuel cell modules can be combined, their modular design provides increased flexibility for building generation capacity.
Beyond the efficiency and reliability advantages of fuel cells, a growing number of countries and regions are also offering incentives for businesses to invest in fuel cells. For instance, the U.S. has a long history of supporting energy infrastructure through U.S. tax code and offers the Federal Fuel Cell Investment Tax Credit (ITC).
What role do SOFCs play in the energy transition?
Cummins is using the SOFC technology as the basis for ongoing development work today. Within both the SOFC and PEM fuel cell space, Cummins is also working to leverage fuel cell technology for electrolysis to produce green fuels, like hydrogen, and synthetic fuels. These technologies are part of Cummins' broader energy production portfolio, including traditional combustion generators, electrolyzers, lithium-ion batteries and PEM fuel cells.
Currently, natural gas is the most suitable fuel to power fuel cells due to distribution infrastructure (well sites, processing plants and pipelines to move the gas) in place and the fact that it offers lower emissions than other fossil fuels, like oil and coal. As zero-carbon energy production advances, the goal is to fuel SOFCs using hydrogen or other zero-carbon fuels. When SOFCs run on zero-carbon fuels they become a zero-emissions power source.
Cummins continues to be a leader in the global energy transition through our participation in innovation conversations and leadership of a number of U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) projects related to hydrogen and fuel cell technologies. These initiatives align with the company’s larger environmental sustainability strategy, PLANET 2050. There are still more advancements to be made in the fuel cell space, and Cummins is forging ahead to unlock the full potential of solid oxide fuel cells.