Energy IQ: What is a solid oxide fuel cell and how fuel cells work

Cummins solid oxide fuel cells

July 20, 1969 might not immediately ring a bell, but what if we were to give you a hint by saying the word "Apollo?" 

Yes, that was the date humans first landed on the moon as a part of the Apollo 11 mission. Most of us remember details such as the images of astronauts on the Moon’s surface, and Neil Armstrong’s reaction, “That's one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.” Yet many don’t know how the spacecraft obtained its electrical power through this historical mission.

Fuel cells were NASA’s answer to this challenge, as Apollo spacecraft carried three hydrogen-fuel cells to provide electricity for all the equipment. Each of these fuel cell modules had 31 individual fuel cells stacked together 1.

Over 50 years later, fuel cells today are used in a variety of applications ranging from vehicles to data centers. Let’s focus on solid oxide fuel cells and answer four common questions to boost your energy IQ.

Question No. 1: What is a solid oxide fuel cell?

Simply put, all fuel cells are energy converters; they convert energy from one form to another. More specifically, fuel cells convert the chemical energy stored in the fuel to electric and thermal energy (heat), without the need for combustion. Engines and power plants also convert energy from one form to another, but they rely on combustion, which reduces the overall efficiency of the energy conversion.

Solid oxide fuel cells are one of the many types of fuel cells and produce electricity, water, heat and small amounts of carbon dioxide using natural gas as the fuel.  

Question No. 2: How does a solid oxide fuel cell work? 

Electricity is the movement of electrons, and all elements (hydrogen, oxygen and others) have varying numbers of electrons. 

Solid Oxide Fuel Cells - Electricity
Solid oxide fuel cells produce electricity, movement of electrons. 

A solid oxide fuel cell utilizes the movement of electrons and generates electricity in few basic steps.

  1. Natural gas goes through a steam-reforming process. This chemical reaction produces hydrogen (H2), carbon monoxide (CO), carbon dioxide (CO2) and steam (H2O). There will be some unreformed natural gas left in the mix as well.
  2. The mix of elements from the reformer enter the fuel cell at the anode side. Meanwhile, air (including oxygen) enters the fuel cell at the cathode side. 
  3. Oxygen in the air combines with free electrons to form oxide ions at the cathode. Oxide ions with free electrons travel from the cathode to the anode through the electrolyte.
  4. At the anode, oxide ions react with hydrogen forming water (steam) and with carbon monoxide (CO) forming carbon dioxide (CO2).  
  5. Reactions covered on Step #4 release free electrons. These free electrons travel to cathode through the external electrical circuit, producing electricity.

Question No. 3: What are the differences between solid oxide and proton exchange membrane fuel cells?

Proton exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cells, also known as hydrogen fuel cells, and solid oxide fuel cells share the same basic operating principles yet have many differences. Here are two of these differences impacting how these technologies are being used today. 

Types of fuel cells
Comparison of four primary types of fuel cells. 
  • Fuel : PEM fuel cells use pure hydrogen (H2) as fuel. Meanwhile, solid oxide fuel cells can use hydrocarbon fuels such as natural gas, methane and propane to produce electricity. 
  • Size: While a single cell of a PEM fuel cell and a solid oxide fuel cell don’t differ significantly in size, the size difference comes into play when a fuel cell module is assembled together. A typical PEM fuel cell module would be smaller than a solid oxide fuel cell module. This makes PEM fuel cells a good candidate for transportation applications ranging from trucks and buses to trains and boats. 

Question No. 4: Why do we need solid oxide fuel cells?

The benefits of solid oxide fuel cells vary depending upon the application but two benefits remain consistent across applications. 

  1. High efficiency delivers environmental and financial benefits: Electrical efficiency of solid oxide fuel cells reach up to 60% 2. This means 60% of the energy stored in the fuel is converted to useful electrical energy. This is much higher than the efficiencies of coal power plants. Moreover, the use of excess heat produced by the fuel cell for heating purposes in a cogeneration application will further increase the overall efficiency over 80%. Additionally, since fuel cells could be located locally, they eliminate the inefficiencies associated with distribution losses from large central power plants.

    This high efficiency delivers financial benefits and minimizes the environmental footprint, since solid oxide fuel cells commonly use natural gas as fuel in comparison to traditional power plants using coal as fuel. Solid oxide fuel cells also don’t emit sulphur oxides and particulate matter.
     
  2. Modular design brings scalability: The individual fuel cells are bundled together to form a stack. These stacks are then combined with other equipment to form modules. These individual power generation modules can be paralleled to form the fuel cell power system. You can add more fuel cell modules to the overall system as you need. This provides financial flexibility for the user to align the power generation investments with business needs.

Microgrids and fuel cells to energy storage devices, our energy future includes a diverse set of technologies and fuels, and Cummins is committed to innovating and delivering a variety of power solutions to meet these diverse needs of customers. 

Sign up below for Energy IQ to periodically receive relevant insights and trends about energy markets. To learn more about distributed generation solutions Cummins offers, visit our webpage.

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References: 

1 Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. (n.d.). Apollo to the Moon, About the Spacecraft [Web page]. Retrieved from https://airandspace.si.edu/
2 U.S. Energy Department, Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy . (n.d.). Comparison of Fuel Cell Technologies [Table]. Retrieved from https://www.energy.gov/

 

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Aytek Yuksel - Cummins Inc

Aytek Yuksel

Aytek Yuksel is the Content Marketing Leader for Cummins Inc., with a focus on Power Systems markets. Aytek joined the Company in 2008. Since then, he has worked in several marketing roles and now brings you the learnings from our key markets ranging from industrial to residential markets. Aytek lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and two kids.

Q&A: Heat safety awareness

While summer typically brings plenty of fun in the sun, it also means families need to be prepared for the dangers of extreme heat. 

On July 10, 1913, the United States experienced the hottest temperature ever recorded at 134.1°F in Death Valley, California. While most of us will never experience a temperature that high in our lifetimes, extreme heat still calls for vital safety measures during the summer. At Cummins, we want you to have the information available to stay safe all season long.

What are the dangers of extreme heat?

Heat Exhaustion Symptoms

  • Sweating, clammy, pale skin
  • Weak, rapid pulse
  • Headache, muscle cramps
  • Weakness, fatigue, dizziness
  • Nausea or vomiting

Actions to take: 

  • Move to a cool place with A/C
  • Lie down and rest with feet elevated
  • Stay hydrated with water
  • Cool your body with cold, wet cloths
  • Loosen clothing
  • Seek medical help if vomiting occurs or symptoms worsen

Heat Stroke Symptoms:

  • Fever of 103 or higher
  • Dry, red and hot skin with no sweating
  • Fast, strong pulse
  • Dizziness, nausea, throbbing headache
  • Loss of consciousness or seizure

Actions to take: 

  • Call 911 immediately
  • Move person to a cool place
  • Lower person's body temperature with cold water, wet cloths and fanning
  • Place ice packs on neck, arm pits and groin
  • Death is possible if untreated

What are some safety tips during a heat wave?

  • Do not leave children or pets alone in hot vehicles
  • Stay inside during the hottest part of the day (10 a.m. - 4 p.m.) and limit time outside in the sun
  • If A/C is not available, stay indoors on the lowest floor in a well-ventilated area with fans
  • Keep shades and blinds closed
  • Stay hydrated with plenty of water
  • Avoid alcohol and soda as they make dehydration worse
  • Limit strenuous activity and postpone outdoor games and events
  • Apply sunscreen frequently, wear a hat and light-colored clothing
  • Entertain yourself at air-conditioned public spaces such as malls, movie theaters or libraries
  • Check on family and friends with special needs, those who may not have A/C or live alone
  • Keep your pets indoors and ensure they are in a cool space and have plenty of water
  • Listen for weather updates from the National Weather Service on a NOAA weather radio
  • Go to a designated public shelter if your home loses power during periods of extreme heat. Text SHELTER + your ZIP code to 43362 (4FEMA) to find the nearest shelter in your area (example: shelter 12345) and listen to your local officials for shelter locations.

Cummins home standby generatorHow should I prepare for extreme heat?

  • Consider a home standby generator that will keep your home cool in the event of an outage
  • Properly install window air conditioners (sealing any cracks) and insulate if necessary
  • Check A/C ducts for proper insulation and clean filters
  • Install awnings, blinds or light-colored drapes to keep sunlight and heat out
  • Upgrade your windows and weather-stripe door to keep heat out and cool air in
  • Get trained in first aid and CPR

How can a generator keep me safe during a heat wave?

  • Home generators will keep your essential functions – like air conditioning – operating in the event of an outage
  • An automatic transfer switch will ensure your generator starts immediately once your power goes out, so you don’t have to go outside or leave your home
  • Portable generators can provide power to smaller items, like a window A/C unit to keep you cool when experiencing extreme heat

Get your free in-home assessment now or find a local dealer.

Cheryl Nelson, Certified Broadcast Meteorologist

Cheryl Nelson

Cheryl Nelson is an Emmy-nominated and AP award-winning Certified Broadcast Meteorologist, TV Host, FEMA-Certified Instructor and Weather and Preparedness Advisor for Cummins. You can visit Cheryl’s website at www.PrepareWithCher.com and follow her on Twitter and Facebook @CherylNelsonTV. 

Cummins Marine powers adventurists around the Great Loop

Bill and Amy Denison
Bill and Amy Denison complete the 6,500-mile journey around the Great Loop

Many mariners have the Great Loop on their bucket list but only a few are lucky enough to accomplish the task. Bill and Amy Denison are one of those few. With great pride, they were able to complete the 6,500-mile journey down the east coast, up the inland rivers and back across the great lakes.

Their journey began on the waters of Maine and Nova Scotia. Bill and Amy cruised along the coast and visited remote islands in their boat, Mar-Kat – a Back Cove 41 named after their daughters, Margaret and Kathleen. They decided that they wanted to venture further and joined the American Great Loop Cruising Association (AGLCA).

After six months of research and planning, the couple said goodbye to friends and family to set off on their journey to tackle The Great Loop. Departing on 15 June 2018, from Albemarle Sound in North Carolina, they headed south. Mar-Kat powered by a 710 horsepower Cummins marine diesel engine and a 9kW Cummins Onan marine generator.Cummins marine powered boat

Over the course of their journey, Bill and Amy travelled across 13 states and the Province of Ontario, going through 100 locks and racking up almost 500 hours on their boat. By completing the Loop in a counter-clockwise direction, they were able to take advantage of the swift river currents.

Bill said, “The Cummins QSM11 engine worked flawlessly throughout the journey and only required a few oil changes.” When service maintenance was required, the couple got in touch with their local distributor and “received good support from the Cummins Virginia team.”

With unique heavy-duty design elements, Cummins small diesel engines have an extended engine life and provide proven acceleration and torque performance. This reliable, four-valve-per-cylinder marine engine is trusted by hundreds of manufacturers and can be found in the engine rooms of pleasure boats all over the world. Additionally, with more than 8,000 dealers and distributors, the Cummins product gives customers the peace of mind that they need, regardless of where their journey takes them.

After successfully completing The Great Loop in 10 months, Bill and Amy are now planning their next adventure with Mar-Kat, maybe exploring Florida or the southern Bahamas. Regardless of where they head next, Cummins will provide the power, innovation and dependability to drive their voyage.

Discover the Cummins marine range at cummins.com/marine, to see how our engines and generators can power your journeys, on sea or by land. 

Need assistance in choosing the right solution for your boat? Find your local Cummins rep

Cummins Office Building

Cummins Inc.

Cummins is a global power leader that designs, manufactures, sells and services diesel and alternative fuel engines from 2.8 to 95 liters, diesel and alternative-fueled electrical generator sets from 2.5 to 3,500 kW, as well as related components and technology. Cummins serves its customers through its network of 600 company-owned and independent distributor facilities and more than 7,200 dealer locations in over 190 countries and territories.

Australia’s landmark hybrid renewable energy microgrid complemented by thermal power generation from Cummins Power Generation

Cummins QSV91G gas generator and QSK60 diesel units support the Agnew Gold Mine's renewable energy microgrid.
Cummins QSV91G gas generator and QSK60 diesel units support the Agnew Gold Mine's renewable energy microgrid.

With an installed capacity of 56MW, the Agnew Hybrid Renewable Power Station became Australia’s largest hybrid renewable energy microgrid – and the first to utilize wind generation at a mine. The energy produced is equivalent to powering 11,500 homes and will abate 46,400 tonnes of carbon dioxide in the first year alone. 

Agnew Hybrid Renewable Power Station, AustraliaWith an installed capacity of 56MW, the Agnew Hybrid Renewable Power Station became Australia’s largest hybrid renewable energy microgrid – and the first to utilize wind generation at a mine. The energy produced is equivalent to powering 11,500 homes and will abate 46,400 tonnes of carbon dioxide in the first year alone. 

“The renewable energy technologies of EDL’s Agnew Hybrid Renewable Power Station are complemented by thermal generation from Cummins gas and diesel generators,” said Jason Dickfos, EDL Head of Growth. “We’re pleased to be working with Cummins to deliver this landmark project, which will provide the Agnew Gold Mine with more than 50% renewable energy over the long term, without compromising power quality or reliability.” 

The hybrid renewable energy solution at the Gold Fields mine in Western Australia consist of a new off-grid 23MW power station incorporating gas, photovoltaic solar and diesel power generation, followed by 18MW wind generation, a 13MW battery and an advanced microgrid control system. A crucial requirement was that the generators had to provide continuous, reliable power at temperatures up to 45°C. The Cummins QSV91G gas generator model was selected due to its ability to operate in high ambient conditions, in addition to providing high impact step loads and fast ramp rates while maintaining power quality, while the Cummins QSK60 diesel units provide additional power during peak periods of demand and have black start capabilities in the event of a power outage. 

Read more about the Agnew microgrid in this case study

Angela Papageorgiou

Angela Papageorgiou is the Senior Marketing Communications Specialist for the Energy Management Segment of Cummins Inc. Prior to joining Cummins in 2014, Angela worked in Marketing Communications agencies supporting the development and execution of B2C and B2B campaign projects. angela.papageorgiou@cummins.com

Energy IQ: Three situations that maximize the advantages of cogeneration applications

Three situations that maximize the advantages of cogeneration applications
Three situations that maximize the advantages of cogeneration applications

Greenhouses, hospitals, industrial manufacturers and commercial building owners are some of the many turning to cogeneration, also known as combined heat and power (CHP). They enjoy benefits ranging from improved financial performance to reduced environmental footprint. Cogeneration applications’ high efficiency in converting the energy in the original fuel into useful energy is the foundation of these advantages.

These benefits of cogeneration applications are further amplified under certain situations. Let’s cover these situations and associated examples of cogeneration applications. 

No. 1: Certain aspects of your business operate 24/7

The most cost-effective cogeneration systems operate at full output 24/7. 

This doesn’t mean your whole business needs to run 24/7. Instead, you can identify aspects of your business that run 24/7, and power these with a cogeneration system. Meanwhile, you can still have the utility connection and on-site boilers. These are useful to power the rest of your business operations and to manage potential peaks in electricity or thermal energy demand. Another advantage of using a combination of cogeneration and utility power is around maintenance events. This combination allows you to conduct maintenance and service on your cogeneration system without interrupting access to electricity for your business.

Hospitals are a good example of cogeneration applications for this scenario. Controlling the temperature, managing air quality, keeping the medical equipment operational and many other activities require electricity and thermal energy throughout the day. 

No. 2: The need for thermal energy is consistent; it is also simultaneous with the need for electricity several months of the year

Many facilities leverage cogeneration applications with increasing popularity over the years
Many facilities leverage cogeneration applications with increasing popularity over the years

Selling or storing excess thermal energy is often not practical. Excess heat is commonly released as waste heat, lowering the overall efficiency and financial gains of the cogeneration application. The efficiency of a cogeneration system increases when the thermal needs (steam, hot water or chilled water) stay at a consistent level. The same doesn’t apply as much to electricity needs, since excess electricity could often be sold back to the electric utility.

The longer the simultaneous need for electricity and thermal energy, the more advantageous a cogeneration application is. In fact, a good guidance is to consider cogeneration applications if your business has simultaneous needs for electricity and heating/cooling around half of the year or more 1. There are exceptions to this, and some applications are feasible even when the simultaneous need is 2,000 hours a year, about three months. 

Industrial manufacturing is a good example of a cogeneration application for this scenario. Thermal energy needed in industrial processing tends to be consistent throughout the facility’s operation. Moreover, thermal energy and electricity is usually needed simultaneously throughout the year in these facilities.  

No. 3: Electricity prices are high compared to the cost of natural gas

You are financially better off if producing electricity on-site is cheaper than purchasing electricity from the utility. Many cogeneration systems that produce electricity on-site use natural gas as the fuel, and this is where the spark spread comes into play. 

The spark spread is a metric for estimating the profitability of natural gas-fired electric generators. It is the difference between the price of electricity and the cost of the natural gas needed to produce that electricity 2. As the spark spread increases, savings provided by a cogeneration system also increases. Spark spread is an indicator of financial viability, but it is not an exact measure of profitability. 

Facilities where the cost of electricity is high and natural gas as a fuel is available are good examples of cogeneration applications for this scenario. 

Beyond the factors above, the Evaluating Cogeneration for Your Facility white paper outlines other aspects to consider as you explore cogeneration as an option.  

Sign up below for Energy IQ to receive energy focused insights in markets ranging from data centers and healthcare facilities to manufacturing facilities, and everything beyond. To learn more about cogeneration and trigeneration power solutions Cummins Inc. offers, visit our webpage.

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References: 
1 Hamilton, J. (n.d.). Evaluating Cogeneration for Your Facility [Bulletin]. Cummins Inc. Retrieved from https://www.cummins.com
2 U.S. Energy Administration Office (February 2013). An Introduction to Spark Spreads. Retrieved from https://www.eia.gov/
 

Raise Your Energy IQ

Grow professionally with energy trends and insights delivered to your inbox. Read about energy technologies and trends on our Energy IQ Hub.

Aytek Yuksel - Cummins Inc

Aytek Yuksel

Aytek Yuksel is the Content Marketing Leader for Cummins Inc., with a focus on Power Systems markets. Aytek joined the Company in 2008. Since then, he has worked in several marketing roles and now brings you the learnings from our key markets ranging from industrial to residential markets. Aytek lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and two kids.

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