With fuel cells playing a prominent role in President Bush’s "hydrogen initiative," Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham announced yesterday plans to add two new projects valued at more than US$213 million to the U.S. Energy Department's program. The projects will make these hydrogen-fueled power systems so inexpensive they could become commonplace in America’s power market during the next decade, according to the Department of Energy.

Secretary Abraham said that the department has selected teams headed by FuelCell Energy of (Danbury, Connecticut, U.S.) and Acumentrics Corp. (Westwood, Massachusetts, U.S.) to its Solid State Energy Conversion Alliance (SECA) program.

"Fuel cells play a central role in President Bush’s vision of a new hydrogen energy future," Abraham said. "Hydrogen fuel cells will help free us of our dependence on foreign oil and eliminate harmful emissions."

SECA’s goal is to develop a solid-state fuel cell so economical and versatile that it might one day provide auxiliary power for large trucks, supply the military with a battlefield power source, or generate clean electricity in high-efficiency power plants. To make this possible, the department wants to develop breakthroughs in fuel cell design and manufacturing that can cut costs to one-tenth of today’s commercial fuel cells.

Assistant Secretary of Energy for Fossil Energy Mike Smith said the SECA program is intended to move fuel cells into the mainstream of tomorrow’s energy market. "Fuel cells today are being sold largely into niche markets where companies are willing to pay a premium for reliable onsite power," Smith said. "The president’s hydrogen and climate change initiatives, however, envision fuel cells playing a much more prominent role. For this to happen, we have to reduce costs."

The department’s goal is to develop a ceramic fuel cell with factory costs as low as US$400 per kilowatt. Today’s fuel cells sell for well over US$4,000 per kilowatt. If the cost targets can be met, future fuel cells could compete economically with virtually all types of power systems, including gas turbine and diesel generators.

FuelCell Energy and Acumentrics will join four other industry development teams selected by the Energy Department in August 2001. If the new projects run their full course, more than US$67 million in federal funding will go to the FuelCell Energy team and nearly US$38 million to the Acumentrics team over the next nine years. FuelCell Energy and its partners would add nearly US$72 million, while the Acumentrics team would contribute US$36.5 million in cost sharing.

Fuel cells generate power by combining hydrogen and oxygen in an electrochemical reaction, much like a battery produces electric current. Oxygen comes from the air while hydrogen can be extracted from a variety of fuels such as natural gas or coal, or perhaps one day from the electrolysis of water.

One key to reducing costs will be to mass-manufacture standardized ceramic fuel cell modules using techniques adapted from remarkable advances in solid-state electronics. In a ceramic fuel cell, the major components – the electrodes and electrolyte – are solid materials typically configured as rolled tubes or flat plates.

The modules – each sized to generate 3 kW to 10 kW of electricity – would be fitted together for different market applications. By avoiding the need to custom-build each power unit, large volumes of fuel cells could be produced at lower costs. The computer industry used the same approach to dramatically cut the costs of computer chips.

The FuelCell Energy team will base much of its concept on being able to lower the fuel cell’s operating temperature. Current ceramic fuel cells operate in excess of 1000°C (or more than 1800° F). By bringing temperatures down to 700°C (or nearly 1300° F), FuelCell Energy can use lower cost metal alloys, reduce insulation, strengthen seals, and make other improvements to reduce costs. The lower temperatures also will permit the company to transfer many of the innovations it developed for its commercial line of molten carbonate fuel cells to its solid oxide design.

The Acumentrics team’s design involves a series of ceramic mini-cylinders, each roughly the size of a soda straw. Combined into a 10-kW module, the design potentially offers ruggedness and quick start-ups, making the fuel cell especially applicable for residential markets, military applications and broadband communications networks. They can also work as auxiliary power units for heavy-duty trucks.

The Energy Department will fund the projects in three phases with checkpoints to determine whether concepts warrant continued development. The first phase will extend to 2006 when developers are to produce an early prototype for testing at the National Energy Technology Laboratory in Morgantown, West Virginia. U.S.. Subsequent phases would focus on improvements to meet the department’s cost and performance targets.