Small, Mobile, Powerful

Solid oxide fuel cells may be among the first to benefit

Nanotechnology is a hot topic in dozens of industries, including the medicine, environment, public health markets. But there seems to be nothing that can stand in the way of what experts call the new industrial revolution. The manipulation of atomic-sized matter appears poised to change the way people acquire and use their electrical power.

Nanotechnology involves restructuring atoms to change the properties of a substance. Scientists have new access to atoms by using a device called a scanning tunneling microscope. The microscope was created in the early 1980s by Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer of the IBM Zurich Research Laboratories. These researchers received a Nobel Prize in physics for its creation in 1986. Since that time, scientists have been plunging into the tiny submolecular world where, by rearranging and altering atoms, anything seems possible. Using these technologies, scientists have been finding ways to build high-powered, efficient, low-emission machines.

For solid oxide fuel cells (SOFCs), it means creating materials that allows them to run at lower temperatures with a vast increase in efficiency. As importantly, they can be powered by any fuel and only emit a small fraction of the CO2 fumes that come from conventional engines.

SOFCs are not new, but haven’t enjoyed the press their counterpart the Proton Exchange Membrane (PEM) fuel cell has. The PEM is known for its use in high-profile facilities such as hospitals, casinos and government buildings. These units run on pure hydrogen at temperatures of less than 200 F, often generated using an on-site reformer which converts conventional fuels, such as natural gas, into a combination of hydrogen and carbon dioxide.

PEMs offer considerable power and even waste heat recycling, while their emissions amount to nothing more than water vapor. But to create and store pure hydrogen is not a simple task for customers, and building a converter can be more complicated than the PEM fuel cell itself.

On the other hand, solid oxide fuel cells operate at much higher temperatures and use both hydrogen and carbon monoxide to fuel the electrochemical reaction and generate power. This simplifies the design and systems requirements of the fuel cell. Recently, improvements in the operating performance of SOFCs has reduced the startup time from hours or even a full day to a matter of 10 minutes or less. They can now be designed to be small and portable and can be fueled by kerosene, propane or diesel fuel, while PEMS require storing of hydrogen in its purest form at high pressure. This is potentially dangerous considering the volatile nature of hydrogen.

Mobile power by way of SOFCs is a new niche that could change the way we view portable power. Previously, SOFCs were used in large mixed installations to power individual buildings or complexes. Recent technical advances have made it possible to create an energy-efficient, rapid-starting portable solid oxide fuel cell. But the use of nano-size materials in these fuel cells make their emergence that much more interesting.

NanoDynamics Inc. (www.nanodynamics.com), Buffalo, N.Y., a company that designs, develops and manufactures nanomaterial for use in power generation, has developed nano-size fuel cell unit materials that are some of the first already in use in the industry. The company is launching mobile fuel cell units for mid-sized applications—less power output than required by a car––but more than is provided by a laptop computer or cell phone battery. The result is a new technology that may soon be powering everything from hand tools to small workstations and recreational vehicles.

The use of nanomaterials makes the units stronger, compact and more efficient. According to NanoDynamics Vice President and Chief Technology Officer Glenn Spacht, the company’s mobile SOFCs can rise from room temperature to 1,500 F in about 17 seconds. This allows the system to reach full power in a matter of minutes rather than the multi-hour start-up usually associated with solid oxide fuel cells.

One immediate application for the mobile fuel cells is with the U.S. military, where soldiers use heavy, bulky battery packs to power their radios, Global Positioning System navigation devices, night-vision goggles and laser weapons. Because these batteries often lose power in the field, soldiers are required to carry spare batteries as well. With NanoDynamics fuel cells, Spacht said, the power packs would be lighter and soldiers would carry only small canisters of fuel to recharge the cells whenever needed.

NanoDynamics is developing such compact power systems for the military on their own funds based upon their commercial product design. “Our approach is to sell the product, not the research,” said NanoDynamics CEO Keith Blakely. “There are enough companies promising fuel cells to the military; we want to be among the first to actually deliver operating units that can be deployed.” The company is completing the research phase, and at the same time, offering a commercial product to power a unique form of advertising not previously powered by fuel cells. Rotating trash cans, with illuminated advertising images on their sides and powered by fuel cell units, will eliminate the need for hardwiring the device to a 120V AC source or using heavy duty lead acid batteries.

“This combination of nanomaterial and fuel cell technology could have an enormous impact,” Blakely said. “We can’t even begin to think of the number of applications where people would want thousands of watt hours from a single kilogram of fuel.” He added that, “Opportunities to deliver power to remote regions of the globe and provide communications, medical, and security systems with electricity are very exciting to think about.” While the technology is still in its infancy, people like Blakely expect it to take on a life of its own.

Professor Scott Barnett at Northwestern University has come to a similar conclusion. His research determined that nanomaterials will be playing an increasingly important role in solid oxide fuel cells. Barnett recently completed research on the development of thin-electrolyte, low-temperature SOFCs. “Low temperature operation requires high electrolyte conductance, which we achieve through the use of thin electrolytes,” he reported in his research study.

For those in the development phase, maintaining fast electrochemical reactions at the anode and cathode is a substantial challenge. Barnett found he could use nano-grained electrode materials to enhance reactions at low temperatures

With all these findings, companies are now looking at how, where and when to join the groundswell. According to American Business Intelligence (ABI) a market research company, by 2008 portable fuel cells are expected to have a 200 million unit presence. “That could be a $40 billion market,” Blakely estimated.

And consider applications beyond the mobile batteries. Researchers are looking into building fuel cell units that can generate power for a family home, as well as connect to the power grid and even sell power back to the utilities that could be used to power other homes in the same neighborhood. Local power generation minimizes transmission line losses and makes the utility’s system more efficient.

It’s not hard to find excitement among those who are developing this technology. And the media, as well as investors, are predicting head-spinning changes. But those changes may still take time. Merrill Lynch economist Norm Poire predicts the next innovation to arrive on the scene since computers will be fuel cell energy and nanotechnology, but it won’t be next year. Poire tracks the market growth of new technology and argues that innovations such as computers take about 28 years to become widely accepted. After that, another 56 years of fast growth occur before the technology becomes mature. Poire classifies nanotechnology with the computer, automobile, railroad and textile industries and expects similar growth patterns.

At the same time, the National Science Foundation (NSF) predicts nanotechnology as a whole will impact the market by $1 trillion in 10 to 12 years. Georgia Tech physics professor Uzi Landman told CNN reporter Marsha Walton early this year that he expects it will be five to 10 years before nanoscale “parts” are common in electronic devices. On the other hand, Intel is delivering nanoscale devices right now. The Prescott version of the P4 processor includes a transistor gate oxide layer that is 1.2 nanometers thick as well as a “strained silicon” transistor body that involves the manipulation of silicon at the atomic level.

More specific to fuel cells, Frank DiSalvo, director of the Center for Fuel Cell Research at Cornell University, predicts nanotechnology will take off in the automotive industry first. That, he says, is because the fuel cell units used in vehicles run at a much lower temperature, which is more amenable for nanomaterial. At high temperatures, DiSalvo said, materials tend to be constructed at sub micron level rather than the nano level. “If you could keep particles stable at high temperatures,” he said, nanomaterials would be a better fit for solid oxide fuel cells. “What is needed is significant investment in research and development—a sustained investment,” he added.

Even with those cautionary comments, companies like NanoDynamics are charging ahead. One of their first products, aptly named the Revolution-50, could lead to revolutionary changes in how electrical power is generated and delivered in a broad range of consumer, commercial and military applications. EC

SWEDBERG is a freelance writer based in western Washington. She can be reached at claire_swedberg@msn.com.