The fuel cell quest is on

Four new US government-industry projects have been selected as the vanguards of a $500 million, 10-year effort to produce breakthroughs in fuel cell technology.

Four new US government-industry projects have been selected as the vanguards of a $500 million, 10-year effort to produce breakthrough fuel cells that will shatter current cost barriers and move the advanced, low-polluting technology into mainstream energy markets.

The US Department of Energy has selected proposals from Honeywell, Siemens Westinghouse Power, the team of Delphi Automotive Systems and Battelle and the team of Cummins Power Generation and McDermott Technology as the winners in a competition to begin developing ultra-low-cost fuel cells.

The Energy Department’s goal is to cut the costs of fuel cells to as low as 1/10th the cost of currently marketed systems and to only 1/3rd the cost of the more advanced concepts now beginning to reach commercial readiness. At $400 per kilowatt or less, these future fuel cells could find widespread market acceptance well beyond the niche applications of today’s systems.

The Energy Department believes that developing an all-solid-state fuel cell ‘building block’ that can be mass-manufactured is one of the best ways to dramatically lower costs – much like advances in solid state technology have cut the costs of computers and other electronics.

The department has formed the Solid State Energy Conversion Alliance (SECA), made up of commercial developers, universities, national laboratories, and government agencies, to develop the all-solid-state concept. Two government laboratories – the National Energy Technology Laboratory in Morgantown (WV) and Pittsburgh (PA), and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, WA – are the driving forces behind SECA.

SECA-developed fuel cells could eventually be used to generate electric power at central power plants, substations, or the point where the power is consumed. Versions of SECA fuel cells could also be used for military and automotive applications.

Each project will be divided into three phases. In the first phase, lasting four years, the teams will aim toward an $800 per kilowatt cost goal; in the next two phases, each lasting three years, the teams hope to trim costs to $600 per kilowatt and $400 per kilowatt or less, respectively. At each stage, fuel-to-energy efficiencies will also be enhanced, ultimately reaching 60 to 70 percent or more than twice the efficiencies of most of today’s fossil fuel power plants.

If all projects proceed as planned, the department will provide about $271 million over the next 10 years, with the project teams financing approximately $226 million. Exact cost-sharing and other terms will be negotiated over the next several weeks.

For its part, Honeywell will design, develop and demonstrate a modular, 3- to 10-kilowatt solid oxide fuel cell system for a wide range of power-generation needs. The self-contained prototype will be able to operate on a variety of fuels and can be designed as a stand-alone power plant tailored for a specific market, or integrated into a larger system. The Energy Department will provide nearly $74 million for the 10-year project with Honeywell contributing $59 million.

Siemens Westinghouse Power, on the other hand, plans to develop a 7- to 10-kilowatt solid oxide combined heat and power system for residential applications, and a 3-to 10-kilowatt auxiliary power unit for automotive applications. Working with Siemens are Fuel Cell Technologies, Blasch Precision Ceramics, Georgia Institute of Technology, Lennox Industries, the Trane Company, Dominion Resources, Ford Motor Company, Eaton Corporation and Newport News. The Energy Department will provide $47.8 million while Siemens Westinghouse and its team will provide $32.8 million.

At Delphi Automotive Systems and Battelle, research will concentrate on the development and testing of a solid oxide design that can be mass produced for automotive and truck auxiliary power units, distributed power generation and military markets. Delphi and Battelle will demonstrate a 5-kilowatt system that operates on common fuels. The University of Utah will participate as a consultant. The Energy Department will provide $74.6 million while Delphi and its partners will contribute $60.9 million.

Finally, Cummins Power Generation and McDermott Technology will pursue stationary and mobile markets by producing and testing a modular, 10-kilowatt system. It will be designed to compete with and possibly replace current reciprocating engines of the same size. Key subcontractors are Ceramatec and Advanced Refractory Technologies. The US Energy Department will contribute $74.2 million while the Cummins/McDermott team will provide $91.5 million.