Batteries Redox Power launches The Cube low cost fuel cell.

Published on August 24th, 2013 | by Tina Casey


New Redox Power Fuel Cell Gives Li-ion Batteries A Run For The Money

August 24th, 2013 by  

While lithium-ion batteries are current champs of the electric vehicle market, fuel cells are beginning to come on strong. If that trend continues it raises some intriguing future scenarios, namely, fuel cells could eventually squeeze out Li-ion batteries altogether, or both technologies could co-exist to some degree, engaging in a continuous battle for market share. There is also a third possibility, which is that the EV of the future will be an ultra long-range, super quick-charging model using a fuel cell in combination with a battery, and that’s where a new fuel cell from the company Redox Power could come in.

The New Redox Power Fuel Cell

Fuel cells use a variety of fuels to generate electricity through a chemical reaction, rather than by combustion. The result is lower emissions, greater fuel efficiency, and lower operating noise than a typical internal combustion engine.

Redox Power launches The Cube low cost fuel cell.

Redox Power fuel cell courtesy of mtech.

Just two little problems have prevented fuel cells from breaking into the mainstream: high cost, and high operating temperature.

Redox Power, a company spun out of long term research at the University of Maryland Energy Research Center, has been tackling both issues head on and last week it announced the impending launch of its first market-ready product, the PowerSERG2-80, aka the Cube, in 2014.

First let’s note for the record that the technology is not an EV product, at least not yet. The Cube is a modestly scaled, 25 kilowatt fuel cell about the size of a dish washing machine, designed to handle the energy load for a typical small business such as a gas station or a convenience-sized grocery store.

As for the innards, the Cube consists of stacks of solid oxide fuel cells, each about ten centimeters square. Solid oxide fuel cells use high tech ceramics as the electrolyte, which enhances efficiency and stability but presents a challenge in terms of temperature.

According to the Energy Research Center, typically a solid oxide fuel cell can reach operating temperatures up to 950 degrees Celsius. Redox Power has lowered that high mark to about 650 degrees, enabling the use of a relatively inexpensive steel platform compared to the special alloys required by higher temperatures (specs for the Cube list an operating temperature of 550 degrees). Operating performance also improves at lower temperatures, and Redox Power anticipates that with further tweaks it can get all the way down to 300 degrees.

The company’s future plans include offering the Cube at scalable configurations ranging from 5 kW for a typical home, and up to 80 kW and more for other sites. Redox Power has also hinted that a fuel cell EV is in the future, too.

Redox Power has hinted that a fuel cell for EVs is in its future, and that’s what brings to mind the idea of combining an EV with a fuel cell, which would act as a range extender. In terms of commercial viability that’s only going to happen when the cost of fuel cells and batteries drops, but here’s hoping.

About That Natural Gas Thing…

Despite their advantages we’ve been giving fuel cells the sustainability stinkeye for now, because conventional fuel cells rely on fossil fuels either directly in the form of natural gas or indirectly in the form of hydrogen, which requires an energy intensive manufacturing process.

For all its high tech bells and whistles, the bottom line in terms of fuel is that the Cube falls into the primitive fossil fuel category. Redox Power is banking on the low price of domestic natural gas to entice potential buyers off the electricity grid and into installing the Cube on their premises, using the existing gas transportation infrastructure.

That could prove problematic down the line, as the natural gas fracking industry is facing some serious financial issues as well as mounting evidence of significant environmental and public health threats including water contamination, earthquakes and the release of greenhouse gases from drilling sites.

With an industry shakeout, tighter drilling regulations and an easing of export restrictions threatening to exert upward pressure on natural gas prices, buyers might not be so eager to switch out of their current fuel situation.

On the other hand, for customers concerned about disruptions in the electricity grid, on site solutions like the Cube will still be attractive (let’s note that gas lines can also leak or break, but they are not nearly as vulnerable as overhead power lines).

There is also a green light at the end of the fuel cell tunnel. Renewable biogas and liquid biofuel are becoming viable options, and research is progressing apace on the use of renewable energy to power hydrogen manufacturing systems.

One especially intriguing example is a small scale, ultra low cost “artificial leaf” concept, which uses a palm-sized photoelectrochemical cell to release hydrogen from water. The device is being developed specifically to provide households in undeveloped regions with a safer, more sustainable alternative to kerosene and biomass.

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About the Author

specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.

  • Senlac

    Natural Gas and fracking are very bad news for the environment. I would like to see the use of renewable bio fuels, algae etc… in a non-combusion process. This is the most valid use of fuel cells and where the future is.

  • exdent11

    “Mounting evidence of significant environmental and public health threats ” of using natural gas is not accurate from the science . Only mounting political evidence of a jihad against a better if not perfect solution to burning coal.

    • JamesWimberley

      Please learn to read before commenting.

      • exdent11

        Funny thing ; the White House and the EPA and the the head of of the DOE agree with me and they can read presumably.

  • Ghonadz

    The basic idea of including a home fuel cell in the energy mix is not a bad one but this example of it is lousy. Using natural gas has three big disadvantages; first – it keeps you tied to the grid; second – it use a fossil fuel and emits CO2; and third – it requires very high temperatures. Hydrogen fuel cells are a much better choice for many reasons; no CO2 emissions or other hydrocarbon pollution; operate at room temperature; fuel can be produced at home using sunlight. That’ the real good news that this article tosses in almost as an afterthought right at the end. There have been a number of discoveries in recent years of ways to produce hydrogen very cheaply from just sunlight and at room temperatures. Google ‘hydrogen from sunlight’ and start digging deep into the many different techniques that have discovered and are under development. It may be possible at some point, if you have sufficient sunlight available for hydrogen production, to fuel a hydrogen fuel cell car all by yourself. Some of the researchers claim their technique could be mass produced very cheaply so the initial investment in may not be that great to achieve energy independence and have a home that is completely off grid and yet fully powered. It might be best to install a hybrid system that combines solar and perhaps wind with the hydrogen fuel cell/hydrogen production set up for rural residences.

    • Bob_Wallace

      There seems to be a certain romance to turning every household into a stand alone utility system and discarding the grid.

      I simply don’t think it makes sense. And I say that as someone who has been off the grid for over 20 years.

      The more supply inputs a system can have, the cheaper the electricity will be. Trying to run a system using only solar with solar/hydrogen storage means that cheaper wind and hydro are ruled out. Using only solar (or only wind or only any single source) means that you must overbuild capacity and storage for the times when you supply is in short supply.

      In general, small is more expensive. It’s cheaper to build large systems than lots of small systems.

      Systems require monitoring, maintenance and repair. That is cheaper to do in larger installations than small ones. Think of the problems of maintaining 3 million independent systems in New York City.

      Rooftop solar makes sense due to its ability to offset retail costs. It’s not as cheap as large scale solar. It might make sense for some people to install some storage, but I suspect storage is going to be considerably cheaper at the grid level.

      Everyone running their own utility company? I don’t see it.

  • JamesWimberley

    Well done Tina, keep providing us with context and not just gee-whiz-another-great-invention.

    One way to think of fuel cells is as alternatives to gas turbines. They can be made smaller, and are quieter and more efficient.

    Keeping the gas grid is definitely an option not just as a bridge but as part of the 100% renewable economy. This depends on the costs of atmospheric syngas (made using wind or solar electricity) compared to batteries or geothermal or hot salt CSP, as alternative routes to dispatchable backup. All these lines should be developed.

    If I were Moniz, I´d shift funding there away from wind and solar PV, which are already competitive, or will be very soon with technology already out of the labs and going in to the factories.

    • Bob_Wallace

      It’s too early to move money away from wind and solar installation to fuel cell installation. There is no proven fuel cell technology to date.

      Also, we don’t need additional fill-in for wind and solar and won’t for some years.

      If fuel cells need some more research money, which I imagine they don’t, then some should be provided. But this should be minor money compared to installation assistance.

      This is the time to research and develop storage and fill-in generation. Not the time to start installing large amounts of under-developed technologies.

      • wattleberry

        Also, amid all the ballyhoo surrounding better batteries or equivalents, it’s too easy to forget the relatively low-tech means already available to minimise dark hour demands such as insulation and larger hot water tanks which can supply central heating, especially if boosted by combined thermal/PV panels.
        It’s as though we’re so dazzled by the challenges of as-yet undeveloped technologies that we ignore what’s staring us in the face.

      • Doug

        I agree with Bob. Fuel cells have been in the lab for decades and don’t appear competitive. Why push investment into fuel cells rather than continuing investment to bring down the cost of proven wind, solar, geo and storage technologies? The cost of real renewable solutions would be much lower today if not for prior foolish investments in fuel cells and carbon capture.

      • JamesWimberley

        I was talking about research money, which is what the DoE has to spend.

    • Matt

      I’d shift money away from oil, coal, and nuclear first.

  • CubeSpawn

    I worked on a GIS (Mapping) project for a contractor in the Marcellus shale in PA, and I live just north of the Barnett in TX

    Once ALL the facts on fracking get out, it will be seen as an environmental disaster it actually is…

    “An easing of export restrictions” read this: nopales cactus to methane pilot plant in Mexico, the fuel cells RUN ON METHANE!!

    I look forward to buying a few fuel cells, I have 600 opuntia ficus-indica planted and plan to expand this to about one acre…

  • Adam Devereaux

    The bigger impact technology like this will have is to provide a viable alternative for households with a PV system and battery backup dealing with a hostile utility. Either household CHP or household sized fuel cells would be the third peg of a off grid tech triangle that even suburbanites may find appealing in the near future.

    Consider the scenario where households with 3-10kw systems- for example in Australia- are dealing with tightening feed-in tariffs and left resenting pouring energy they created in the grid without fair compensation. How much incentive would they have to adopt a system that let’s them cut the utility right out forever?

    How about a battery/PV/fuel cell system Installed as part of a new home build?

    • Bob_Wallace

      Few people are going to cut themselves from the grid unless they can enjoy a significant savings. And the new system is going to have to be very convenient.

      Going off the grid with a solar, batteries and a fuel cell is going to require spending a lot of capital or incurring a lot of debt. I doubt that it would be cheaper in most places to beat the price of grid power. Batteries, at this point in time, have limited lives. Households might need to budget as much as $100/month for battery replacement. And the fuel cell will require fuel.

      • Adam Devereaux

        Bob, I agree that it is unlikely most users will go off grid. However to play devils advocate- few people will install solar unless it will save them money. And with the utilities trying to weaken or cripple the financial side of net metering self use will be all the more important. We even see utilities attempting to prevent battery systems from being attached to the grid.

        We may see solar installers such as SolarCity start integrating battery units in difficult markets as well.

        • Bob_Wallace

          In no way do I want to try to predict what is going to happen in the next few years in terms of how utilities run their business.

          It’s pretty clear that residential solar costs are going to fall. We’ve got a lot of soft costs that can go away fairly quickly. We’re seeing a very rapid growth in installation and that means companies will be fighting hard for market share. Looking for ways they can under price their competition.

          And it also seems the case that it doesn’t take too much end-user solar to really mess up “business as usual”.

          Germany has seen their sunny hour peak prices drop very low with only a modest amount of solar on their grid. Their utilities are calling for closing 3.1 GW of coal even while nuclear plants are closing.

          Australia is looking at closing 9 GW of coal, a significant percentage of their total coal capacity, with not all that much end-user solar on line.

          We could see the same thing happen here in the US. The very profitable (for coal and nuclear) sunny hour peak could quickly disappear. That could drive some plants, already profit damaged by wind, to go bankrupt.

          Utilities are going to have to change the way they do business. The question is how fast will they make the change and what will it be?

          I can see them abandoning net metering, the ones that offer it, and paying end-users something more like wholesale prices. And switching to TOU billing with the now low midday rate lower. That would mean that end-users would get paid less for their sales to the grid and would, at the same time, no longer be avoiding the most expensive TOU charges.

          That could greatly slow end-user solar. Maybe even stop its growth. But I don’t think that would happen quickly and not without some major push-back from solar owners.

          I’m fairly skeptical of end-user storage. Batteries are expensive. If cheaper batteries are developed that can be used in residences (EOS System zinc-air batteries are a candidate) then we might see a sizable portion of users go solar + storage and use the grid for backup.

          But I can see something like very cheap liquid metal batteries coming available and allowing the grid to sell stored power for less than end-users can generate and store.

          In other words, I don’t know what is going to happen.

          It’s going to be interesting, though….

          • Bob_Wallace

            Here’s a chart for off the grid folks. Look at how much it costs to store electricity using the batteries on the market today.

            Prices for lithium-ion might be down a bit now, but still….

          • Bob_Wallace

            Here’s another that breaks down the cost of lead-acid batteries. It’s fairly recent since it lists the T105 RE which hasn’t been on the market very long.


          • Adam Devereaux

            *edit* I borked my numbers- not enough coffee!

            I’m not sure exactly how they figure their costs, but based on a back of a hand calculations on a Winston LFP battery (using their 700AH cells, you can buy these from Balqon) I figure $0.13 per kWh in/out. My simple equation is Total cost / kWh per charge / cycle life.

            I figured $11k for 15 700AH batteries at 48V total (33.6kWh) @ 70% DOD for 23.5kWh in/out per charge and 3500 cycles per manufacturer specs. I added $1k to the cell price for BMS. Note that Balcon sells a fully contained 34kWh system for $12K.

            To compare with the Trojan’s: according to Amazon you can get 4 T105RE’s for $759 (plus shipping which I am ignoring for now). My formula would be $1518 / 180 / 1000 for $0.17. However the Trojans would require much more maintenance in the long run and high shipping costs (hopefully you could obtain from a local dealer).

            This is obviously for off-grid. On-grid is a whole different beast, especially if backed by a CSP or fuel cell. What I was referring too is the capacity of a new construction or when it is time to overhaul home HVAC to utilize newer technology.

            If the volume was behind it, I think a CSP/HPWH/Solar with small integrated storage could ultimately be an affordable replacement for home HVAC systems.

            Lithium really does change the equation, there are lithium cells that allow for massive cycle life’s, such as the Toshiba SCiB (10k+ cycles at 100% DoD). If you can buy the battery for the life of the entire system (20-30 years) then that is a real game changer.

          • yazinsai

            Adam/Bob, have you guys heard about the Shuttle Battery (here: that generates power by oxidizing Iron? What do you think. Could this really be the future, especially considering its superior stated energy density.

          • Bob_Wallace

            Your link is broken.

            I’m in no position to know what might or might not work. When I searched for “Shuttle Battery” I found links dated no more recently than 2011 and that’s not a good sign.

            Ambri, EOS, Aquion and a few other companies claim to have working prototypes of their batteries and some of the companies are opening factories and starting production. I’m not ready to call any of them “100%, for sure”, but I allow myself to believe that they are close to proving themselves.

            One good grid battery and one good EV battery. That’s what we need right now.

            There could easily be far more powerful and/or less expensive technologies yet to emerge.

            Personally, I get the most excited over a solution that has proved itself even if it isn’t 100% perfect than an idea that sounds great but has no backing data.

            I’ll take an affordable “200 mile range” EV battery over an idea that might lead to an affordable “400 mile range” EV battery.

          • yazinsai

            Sorry – I don’t know how the extra ‘)’ got in there. Here’s the correct link:

          • Bob_Wallace

            All I see on their site is an idea and a patent. I don’t see any claims of them having a prototype. No performance claims based on lab work. No third party testing. Their web site isn’t even finished.

            I’d put them in the “Maybe, perhaps” category.

          • yazinsai

            Gotcha. Thanks for the feedback Bob

          • Bob_Wallace

            I went back and read the page more carefully. I missed this with my earlier glance –

            “The proof of concept cell demonstrated zero capacity loss after 200 cycles of discharge and charge.”

            Sounds like they have done some lab work. But they don’t give much information. No efficiency number. No cost projections. No kWh/kg type measurements. And why would they stop at 200 cycles?

            They seem to have received funding back in July. I would assume they would have already run the 200 cycle tests before seeking funding to go further.

            I set alerts for the company and for the battery. I’m going to track them and see what, if anything, happens.

          • dougcard

            I must assume the cost column should be kWh

          • dougcard

            Cost to purchase up front – ignore that last post

  • Ross

    The second half of this article does a good job of bringing us back to reality and keeping true to the 100% fossil free vision that is being realised by technologists making wiser choices.

  • eject

    Fuel cell cars will always carry a battery or maybe capacitors. The fuel cell is basically a range extender.

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