Solid Oxide Fuel Cells Are Having A (Big) Moment

Sign up for daily news updates from CleanTechnica on email. Or follow us on Google News!

It’s been a while since CleanTechnica took a look at solid oxide fuel cells, and there is a lot of catching up to do. To cite just a couple of new developments, Shell has just inked a deal with the firm Ceres to test their solid oxide technology to produce green hydrogen in India, and the iconic auto maker Ferrari has hooked up with the US company Bloom Energy to decarbonize its Maranello factory in Italy.

Whatever Happened To Solid Oxide Fuel Cells?

For those of you new to the topic, a hydrogen fuel cell mixes hydrogen with ambient oxygen and a catalyst to generate zero emission electricity, with water being the only byproduct. The reverse process is called water electrolysis, in which electricity and a catalyst are applied to water, pushing out hydrogen gas.

Polymer electrolyte membrane (PEM) fuel cells have attracted the most attention from the green hydrogen field so far. They typically deploy a solid polymer as an electrolyte, as described by our friends over at the US Department of Energy.

Solid oxide fuel cells are another beast entirely. Their electrolyte is a non-porous ceramic compound and they can operate at temperatures as high as 1,830°F. Within a co-generation system, their fuel efficiencies could reach 85% or more.

Among other benefits, the high-heat angle eliminates the need for an expensive catalyst, and it also enables the fuel cell to work on a variety of inputs without the need for system add-ons.

There being no such thing as a free lunch, some fine tuning is in order before solid oxide systems hit the mass market. Meanwhile, the Energy Department is on to the doorway through which green hydrogen production comes into the picture. Here’s the take from the SOFC Program, run by the Energy Department’s National Energy Technology Laboratory:

“The SOFC Program is…developing the synergistic solid oxide electrolysis cell (SOEC) technology. Electrolysis is a process that splits hydrogen from water using an electric current. SOEC systems offer a potentially attractive option for producing hydrogen because of high efficiency and system flexibility.”

“…developers are [also] exploring the potential to use both the SOEC and SOFC in a single hybrid device in order to produce electricity during times of high demand (high value) and to produce hydrogen during times of off peak demand (low cost),” NETL adds. “The hydrogen produced during off-peak demand could, for example, later be used in electricity generation and this makes the SOEC system a key component in enabling the wider adaption of distributed renewable power sources such as wind and solar.”

The Return Of The Solid Oxide Fuel Cell

CleanTechnica took a few looks at the solid oxide firm Bloom Energy about 10 or so years ago, but the radar has been pretty quiet since then. The last time CleanTechnica took another poke at solid oxide fuel cells was back in July of 2021, when the US Department of Energy launched a $52.5 million round of funding for hydrogen R&D in support of its new “Hydrogen Shot” clean tech acceleration initiative.

The soup-to-nuts hydrogen program makes space for natural gas, but the long term focus is on decarbonization. In last summer’s round of funding, West Virginia University peeled off a $1 million slice for a project called “Designing Internal Surfaces of Porous Electrodes in Solid Oxide Electrolysis Cells for Highly Efficient and Durable Hydrogen Production.”

The Energy Department explains what that means (breaks added):

West Virginia University Research Corporation will develop and implant highly active and robust nano-scale coating layers to the internal surface of a porous electrode.

“The coating layer will be developed using the additive manufacturing process of atomic layer deposition (ALD) and will be implanted on the internal surface of porous electrodes of the as fabricated commercial cells directly.

“The project will provide a simple solution to various materials challenges at the cell level and could further enable extensive and more efficient SOEC stacks and systems.”

In case you’re wondering how the fossil-centric state of West Virginia fits in, solid oxide fuel cells are source-agnostic. They can run on natural gas, and WVU has an impressive portfolio of advanced materials research thanks partly to its experience in the natural gas area.

Natural gas fans may be warming their hearts over the new research grant for now, but what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. Solid oxide fuel cells can run on renewable inputs too, including biogas and, of course, green hydrogen.

For the record, WVU is also chipping in $250,000 from other sources for the effort.

Shell Dives Into Solid Oxide Pool

With all this in mind, let’s take a look at the significance of Shell’s latest drip into the sparkling green economy of the future.

Earlier this week, the firm Ceres announced an agreement with Shell to build a megawatt-scale solid oxide fuel cell project at Shell’s R&D center in Bangalore, India, with the aim of producing green hydrogen for the industrial market.

“Shell and Ceres are building this partnership to utilise SOEC technology to deliver high-efficiency, low-cost green hydrogen; now widely viewed as a credible route to decarbonise hard-to-abate parts of the energy system that rely on fossil fuels today,” Ceres explained.

“Ceres aims to produce hydrogen at efficiencies around 20% greater than other technologies, in the range of mid-80s to 90% efficiency where it is possible to make use of waste heat in industrial processes to drive high efficiency,” they add, noting that the aim is to achieve a “market-leading levelised cost of hydrogen of $1.5/kg by 2025,” they add.

The test run is anticipated to last three years, which should give Shell plenty of time to develop the new Crux natural gas field off the coast of Western Australia.

Sheesh! Oh well, baby steps. Shell has a lot of climate damage to undo, but the US solar industry is one bright spot and its activities in the offshore wind area are another.  Shell is also supporting the EU’s push for green hydrogen, so keep an eye on that.

Ferrari Hearts Solid Oxide Fuel Cells, Too

The other news of interest brings Bloom Energy back onto the CleanTechnica map.

Last week the company announced that it is installing a 1-megawatt solid oxide fuel cell at Ferrari’s manufacturing facility and headquarters in Maranello, Italy, apparently in support of the iconic auto maker’s plans for expansion.

“The partnership with Ferrari, a global leader in the luxury and automotive sectors for 75 years, marks Bloom’s entry into the European Union and Italy and is the first step toward potentially larger projects between the two companies,” Bloom enthused.

“Bloom Energy’s highly efficient platform converts fuels such as hydrogen, biogas, or natural gas into clean electricity without combustion. Through Bloom’s solid oxide platform, Ferrari is expected to be able to reduce its fuel consumption and carbon emissions at its manufacturing facility while unlocking cost and sustainability benefits,” they added.

If one megawatt sounds a bit small, it is. The initial goal is to provide for 5% of Ferrari’s energy needs. However, as an energy efficiency improvement, the new fuel cells will have a sizeable impact. Bloom and Ferrari expect to save 20% on the gas used by the facility’s existing cogeneration system and reduce local emissions.

Green hydrogen could be in play. Bloom also dropped a hint that its flexible Bloom Energy Server platform will enable “Ferrari to generate carbon-free electricity from hydrogen and other zero-carbon fuel sources, in support of “Italy’s emerging hydrogen economy,” which appears to be emerging in step with the EU’s focus on green hydrogen.

Interesting! Anyways, if legacy fossil stakeholders like Shell are really serious about saving the planet, they better get a move on. Things are getting hot around here!

Follow me on Twitter @TinaMCasey.

Photo: Solid oxide fuel cells courtesy of Ceres.

Have a tip for CleanTechnica? Want to advertise? Want to suggest a guest for our CleanTech Talk podcast? Contact us here.

Latest CleanTechnica.TV Video

CleanTechnica uses affiliate links. See our policy here.

Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

Tina Casey has 3298 posts and counting. See all posts by Tina Casey