Redox Power Systems LLC, the University of Maryland, Microsoft Corporation and Trans-Tech Inc. (a subsidiary of Skyworks Solutions Inc.) are teaming to develop transformational fuel cells through a $5 million cooperative agreement funded by the Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (ARPA-E) Reliable Electricity Based on ELectrochemical Systems (REBELS) program, company and university officials jointly announce today.
The goal of the project is to further advance Redox’s high-performance fuel cells and drive them to market-readiness for a broad range of applications, including low-cost distributed power generation and heating and cooling for homes, and for Microsoft—which is providing additional support for the project—energy-efficient datacenters.
These new markets complement Redox’s existing 25 kW product, known as “The Cube,” which is designed for larger commercial structures and can comfortably power a gas station, moderately sized grocery store or small shopping plaza.
The technological advances resulting from this project will also open the door for additional applications such as transportation.
“This project will finally make fuel cells an affordable technology,” said Professor Eric Wachsman, Director of the University of Maryland Energy Research Center (UMERC) in the A. James Clark School of Engineering, who is also a Redox co-founder. “All of the elements we are going to work on—lower temperature, higher power density, faster startup time and load following—these will make fuel cells easier to sell by bringing their cost down even further. It accelerates everything.”
Fuel cells—or devices that convert the chemical energy of a fuel source into electrical energy—are optimal for distributed power generation systems, which generate power close to where it is used, according to ARPA-E. Distributed generation systems offer an alternative to the large, centralized power generation facilities or power plants that are currently commonplace.
Those systems, powered by natural gas (or a wide variety of alternative fuel sources, including liquid fuels such as gasoline and diesel) through Redox’s solid oxide fuel cells, could become a reality if this project is successful.
Led by Fulton, Md.-based Redox, the three-year ARPA-E agreement has UMD partnering with the company to improve its solid oxide fuel cells by the following minimum requirements:
- Reduce the operating temperatures of their record high-power-density fuel cells from an already industry-leading 650 degrees Celsius to the 300-500 °C range;
- Enable a start-up time of less than ten minutes; and
- Respond to electrical load changes, from 10-90 percent power in less than one minute.
“This will be a major advancement in our fuel cell technology,” said Bryan Blackburn, Chief Technology Officer and co-founder of Redox. “It will not be incremental. We are working on every aspect of the cell—the anode, the cathode, the electrolyte. The materials will be different. Every single aspect will synergistically come together to form our highest performing, lowest-cost fuel cell.”
View a high-resolution diagram of the Redox solid oxide fuel cell depicting how it works.
Trans-Tech Inc., based in Adamstown, Md., will work with Redox and UMD to ramp up the commercial production of new cell materials. They will also work with Redox to manufacture the improved fuel cells, establishing ways to reduce production costs. By bringing a large manufacturer like Trans-Tech into the development process early on and working with fuel cells produced using industrial processes, the required time-to-market for new generations of enhanced cells will decrease.
Redox will also redesign its fuel cell stacks to achieve ARPA-E performance targets and reduce costs even further, after which they go to Microsoft for integration and independent live testing in the company’s server racks.
“Our vision is to bring the power plant directly into the datacenter by integrating fuel cell stacks into every server cabinet, effectively eliminating energy loss that otherwise occurs in the energy supply chain and doubling the efficiency of traditional datacenters,” said Sean James, Senior Research Program Manager for Microsoft Global Foundation Services. “We expect to effectively double our efficiency, from fuel to load, while cutting out many points of failure. The resulting system could be significantly less expensive than traditional datacenter designs. Overall, we believe the advancements being made in fuel cells will someday change the game in terms of how energy is delivered and managed.”
Microsoft is also a powerful buyer.
“In this case the partner is also the potential customer,” explained Blackburn. “If Microsoft adopts these fuel cell systems at a large scale, they could provide just the right initial market and critical mass to drive the cost of our fuel cells down even further.”
The Redox-led project is one of 13 funded by the REBELS program, which ARPA-E announced on June 19, 2014, worth a total of $33 million.
“These 13 REBELS projects are an excellent example of how ARPA-E is developing innovative technology options to transform and modernize America’s evolving electric grid,” said ARPA-E Acting Director Dr. Cheryl Martin. “Distributed generation technologies like these could fundamentally change the way America generates and stores energy.”
Redox, initially co-founded by Wachsman and Blackburn after the former spent 25 years developing industry-leading solid oxide fuel cells, was a winner in the 2012 University of Maryland $75K Business Plan Competition, run by the Maryland Technology Enterprise Institute (Mtech). After winning the competition, the company entered Mtech’s VentureAccelerator Program, which helps University of Maryland inventors get their research out of laboratories and into industry by creating successful companies.
Three months later, the company was reformed along with an outside investment and management team and moved to Fulton, Md.