Centralized power generation systems offer excellent economy of scale but often require long transmission distances between supply and distribution points, leading to efficiency losses throughout the grid. Additionally, it can be challenging to integrate energy from renewable energy sources into centralized systems. Fuel cells—or devices that convert the chemical energy of a fuel source into electrical energy—are optimal for distributed power generation systems, which generate power close to where it is used. Distributed generation systems offer an alternative to the large, centralized power generation facilities or power plants that are currently commonplace. Today’s fuel cell research generally focuses on technologies that either operate at high temperatures for grid-scale applications or at low temperatures for vehicle technologies. There is a critical need for intermediate-temperature fuel cells that offer low-cost, distributed generation.
Project Innovation + Advantages:
Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) is developing an intermediate-temperature fuel cell that is capable of utilizing a wide variety of carbon-based input fuels such as methane, butane, propane, or coal without reformation. Current fuel cell technologies require the use of a reformer – which turns hydrocarbon fuels into hydrogen and can generate heat and produce gases. PARC’s design will include a novel electrolyte membrane system that doesn’t have a methane-to-hydrogen reformer, and transports oxygen in a form that allows it to react directly with almost any fuel. This new membrane system eliminates the need for a separate fuel processing system all while reducing overall costs. PARC’s fuel cell will also operate at relatively low temperatures of 200-300ºC which allows it to use less expensive materials and maintain durability. With the use of these materials, the fuel cell system avoids the long-term durability problems associated with existing higher-temperature fuel cells, all while reducing overall costs.
If successful, PARC’s reformer-less fuel cell will utilize a wide-range of low-cost, domestic fuels more efficiently and can be made from less expensive materials.
Enabling more efficient use of natural gas for power generation provides a reliable alternative to other fuel sources—a broader fuel portfolio means more energy security.
Natural gas produces roughly half the carbon dioxide emissions of coal, making it an environmentally friendly alternative to existing sources of power generation.
Distributed generation technologies would reduce costs associated with power losses compared to centralized power stations and provide lower operating costs due to peak shaving.