BU Team Seeks to Improve Solid Oxide Fuel Cell Lifetimes


Longer Duration Critical to Commercialization

By Mark Dwortzan

Mockup of a solid oxide fuel cell
Mockup of a solid oxide fuel cell

The solid oxide fuel cell (SOFC), a device that produces electricity directly from oxidizing a fuel source, is one of the most environmentally benign technologies for converting the chemical energy in fossil fuels to electrical energy. But the performance of today’s SOFCs, which operate at very high temperatures, tends to degrade over time, resulting in shorter lifetimes than those of conventional power generation systems. As SOFC power systems approach commercialization and use in applications ranging from electric power stations to long-haul transportation, their long-term performance is becoming critically important.

At the heart of this problem are the electrochemical interfaces—the cathodes, anodes and electrolytes that enable the fuel cell to work like a turbocharged battery—whose structure changes over time through exposure to high temperatures. To better understand how these interfaces evolve and how their degradation might be mitigated, the Department of Energy has awarded an $800,000 grant to a team of BU researchers with expertise in many areas relevant to the problem, from electrochemistry and coatings to thermodynamics.

The BU team consists of Associate Professor Srikanth Gopalan, Professors Soumendra Basu and Uday Pal, and Assistant Professor Emily Ryan (all ME, MSE); and an industry partner, Fuel Cell Energy of Danbury, Connecticut, one of the world’s leading developers of solid oxide fuel cells.

“This project seeks to unravel the fundamental mechanisms that underlie degradation,” said Gopalan. “Unraveling these complex threads is critical to achieving acceptable lifetimes and broader adoption of SOFCs.”