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SOFC: The Other Fuel Cell

Use the words “fuel cells” in the auto industry, and the discussion will turn toward proton exchange membrane (PEM) units that use hydrogen to create electricity.

Use the words “fuel cells” in the auto industry, and the discussion will turn toward proton exchange membrane (PEM) units that use hydrogen to create electricity. But there’s that other type of fuel cell: SOFC, or solid oxide fuel cells, and it’s not laying down. SOFCs, according to William Dawson, president and CEO of NexTech Materials, Ltd. (Lewis Center, OH; www.nextechmaterials.com), run on a variety of fuels that can be broken down to a feed of hydrogen and carbon monoxide: gasoline, diesel, ethanol, E85, and compressed natural gas. These are fuels that, unlike hydrogen, are readily available in volume today. Dawson admits, however, that most of the action for SOFCs is in residential heat and power systems and commercial power units for buildings, especially in Europe and Japan. However, he believes, “The road to automotive will probably go through these other markets.” He expects the stationary power units will be deployed within the next five years, with the migration to automotive coming five years after that.

While PEMs are looked at as a power supply for a vehicle, Dawson says that SOFCs are better thought of as “a battery charger with a range extender.” He speculates that, “If advanced battery technologies come along, having a flex-fuel vehicle running on batteries has a lot of advantages over one that runs on hydrogen.” When asked whether this isn’t applicable to General Motors’ E-Flex architecture, he responds, somewhat cryptically, “You wouldn’t be the first to think a SOFC would make a nice near-term replacement for the PEM cell in something like the Chevy Volt. You wouldn’t be the first.” We wonder who was.—CAS