Fuel cell technologies have been touted for decades due to their high chemical-to-electrical conversion efficiencies and potential for near-zero greenhouse gas emissions. Fuel cell technologies for power generation have not achieved widespread adoption, however, due primarily to their high cost relative to more established combustion technologies. There is a critical need to develop fuel cell technologies that can enable distributed power generation at low cost and high performance. The projects that comprise ARPA-E’s Reliable Electricity Based on ELectrochemical Systems (REBELS) program include transformational fuel cell devices that operate in an intermediate temperature range in an attempt to create new pathways to achieve an installed cost to the end-user of less than $1,500/kW at moderate production volumes and create new fuel cell functionality that will help increase grid stability and integration of renewable energy technologies such as wind and solar.
Centralized power generators such as natural gas combined cycle plants have historically offered higher electrical efficiencies than smaller generators. There are several key disadvantages, however, including significant greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, transmission and distribution losses averaging, and grid vulnerability to natural disasters and terrorist attacks. Distributed energy resources (DER), including renewable technologies such as solar photovoltaics and wind as well as conventional technologies such as gas turbines and reciprocating engines, are becoming increasingly valued due to attributes such as reduced greenhouse gas emissions, peak load reduction, and enhanced resiliency. That said, the intermittency of renewable DERs once widely deployed will present challenges in terms of grid stability, such as short severe ramps, overgeneration, and decreased frequency response. The REBELS program seeks to create intermediate temperature fuel cells (ITFCs) with lower costs than current high- and low-temperature fuel cells, as well as create new electrochemical functionality, including battery-like response to transient loads and electrochemical production of liquid fuels that could benefit future needs of the grid such as renewables integration. This program builds on materials advances over the past decade that have broadened the number of available electrolytes and electrodes beyond traditional PEM and SOFC temperature ranges. The REBELS program aims to bring together different scientific communities, such as fuel cell materials scientists, inorganic and polymer chemists, researchers working on novel approaches to activate carbon/hydrogen bonds for fuel processing, and experts in fuel cell fabrication methods to quickly advance ITFCs to working prototypes and engage with stakeholders who can drive these devices towards market adoption. ARPA-E also aims to fundamentally alter the paradigm of fuel cell systems by creating new functionality in fuel cell technology.
If successful, the REBELS program would create new fuel cell options for distributed generation applications, enabling grid stability and increased penetration of renewable energy sources.
Developing fuel cell technologies that provide low-cost, distributed power generation would reduce our reliance on large, centralized power plants and thereby reduce our vulnerability to large-scale power disruptions.
Intermediate-temperature fuel cells could produce power with fewer emissions of greenhouse gases and other pollutants.
Efficient fuel cells for distributed power generation running on natural gas could offer significant cost savings in the long run relative to existing combustion technologies and provide greater reliability and resiliency to businesses.