The University of Maryland partners up with Microsoft, Trans-Tech and Redox Power Systems to develop advanced and affordable natural gas fuel cells through a $5 million cooperative agreement funded by ARPA-E through the REBELS program.
The goal of the project is to further advance Redox’s high-performance fuel cells and drive them to market-readiness for a broad range of applications, including low-cost distributed power generation and heating and cooling for homes, and for Microsoft—which is providing additional support for the project—energy-efficient datacenters.
These new markets complement Redox’s existing 25 kW product, known as “The Cube,” which is designed for larger commercial structures and can comfortably power a gas station, moderately sized grocery store or small shopping plaza.
The technological advances resulting from this project will also open the door for additional applications such as transportation.
“This project will finally make fuel cells an affordable technology,” said Professor Eric Wachsman, Director of the University of Maryland Energy Research Center (UMERC) in the A. James Clark School of Engineering, who is also a Redox co-founder. “All of the elements we are going to work on—lower temperature, higher power density, faster startup time and load following—these will make fuel cells easier to sell by bringing their cost down even further. It accelerates everything.”
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, according to ARPA-E. Distributed generation systems offer an alternative to the large, centralized power generation facilities or power plants that are currently commonplace.
Those systems, powered by natural gas (or a wide variety of alternative fuel sources, including liquid fuels such as gasoline and diesel) through Redox’s solid oxide fuel cells, could become a reality if this project is successful.
Led by Fulton, Md.-based Redox, the three-year ARPA-E agreement has UMD partnering with the company to improve its solid oxide fuel cells by the following minimum requirements:
- Reduce the operating temperatures of their record high-power-density fuel cells from an already industry-leading 650 degrees Celsius to the 300-500 °C range.
- Enable a start-up time of less than ten minutes.
- Respond to electrical load changes, 10-90% power in less than one minute.
“This will be a major advancement in our fuel cell technology,” said Bryan Blackburn, Chief Technology Officer and co-founder of Redox. “It will not be incremental. We are working on every aspect of the cell—the anode, the cathode, the electrolyte. The materials will be different. Every single aspect will synergistically come together to form our highest performing, lowest-cost fuel cell.”
Trans-Tech Inc., based in Adamstown, Md., will work with Redox and UMD to ramp up the commercial production of new cell materials. They will also work with Redox to manufacture the improved fuel cells, establishing ways to reduce production costs. Redox will also redesign its fuel cell stacks to achieve ARPA-E performance targets and reduce costs even further, after which they go to Microsoft for integration and independent live testing in the company’s server racks.