INL Tests Advanced Fuel Cell Technology For Industry

Scientists and engineers at Idaho National Laboratory have tested and successfully demonstrated, for the first time, the technical feasibility of directly connecting a catalytic partial oxidation diesel reformer to a 5-kilowatt solid oxide fuel cell system -- converting the diesel fuel into a hydrogen-rich synthesis gas and passing the gas through a fuel cell to generate electricity.

The purpose of this unique three-day test was to gather data to design and integrate a new and revolutionary diesel-powered solid oxide fuel cell system. Ultimately, scientists say, by designing a heat recovery unit into the next-generation system, an efficiency rating of 80 percent can be achieved.

The goal of this new system is to extract twice as much energy out of diesel fuel as current technology extracts, and to replace current internal combustion engine generator sets with more efficient and quieter energy conversion systems.

"This laboratory and all of the companies involved in the test should be proud of this technical accomplishment," said Lyman Frost, INL director of special energy projects. "This test paves the way for cleaner, lower maintenance and more efficient power systems to be used in locations such as remote Alaskan villages."

The diesel reformer unit, designed and built by SOFCo-EFS of Alliance, Ohio, successfully processed two different types of diesel fuel to demonstrate the robust nature of the system in handling special formulated fuels. The first fuel type was a low-sulfur commercial diesel fuel that meets the EPA's 2007 standards for sulfur content. The second fuel type was a synthetic diesel fuel manufactured by Syntroleum at its production plant near Tulsa, Okla.

The solid oxide fuel cell system used in the demonstration was a tubular fuel cell system designed and constructed by Acumentrics of Westwood, Mass. This system is being developed to connect to and operate from a natural gas pipeline with on-cell reforming.

During the demonstration, the fuel cell system was started using natural gas, then switched to a diesel reformate stream coming from the diesel reformer unit. No significant differences in the performance on either fuel were noted during the operation of the combined diesel reformer and fuel cell systems. Prior to this experiment with diesel fuels, the fuel cell had only proven effective using natural gas as the fuel source.

Several environmental advantages associated with this diesel fuel conversion and electricity production process are that less carbon dioxide is released, no nitrous oxide gases are emitted, energy output is improved and the system operates in a nearly silent mode.

Over the next 18 months, the system will be tested using natural gas for an extended period of time at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks. The data gathered will be used to design a totally integrated system with a more powerful solid oxide fuel cell that can support a greater electric generation capacity.

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This article originally appeared in the 06/01/2005 issue of Environmental Protection.

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