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Meet the Potential Future of Electricity Generation

August 14, 2013
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Eric Schurr 301-405-3889

CThe PowerSERG 2-80, also called "The Cube," which provides efficient, always-on, affordable, uninterrupted electricity to business or homes, with just a connection to a natural gas line.OLLEGE PARK, Md. — University of Maryland researchers have partnered with Redox Power Systems LLC to deliver breakthrough fuel cell technologies for providing always-on electricity to businesses, homes and eventually automobiles, at about one-tenth the cost and one-tenth the size of current commercial fuel cell systems.

Those fuel cells, based upon patented technology developed by professor Eric Wachsman, director of the University of Maryland Energy Research Center (UMERC) in the A. James Clark School of Engineering, are the foundation of a system being commercialized by Redox that provides safe, efficient, reliable, uninterrupted power, on–site and optionally off the grid, at a price competitive with current energy sources.

The promise is this: generate your own electricity with a system nearly impervious to hurricanes, thunderstorms, cyber attacks, derechos, and similar dangers, while simultaneously helping the environment.

"Every business or home should be able to safely generate its own energy," said Warren Citrin, CEO and director of Redox. "We currently rely upon a vulnerable electrical grid. The best way to decrease that vulnerability is through distributed energy, that is, by making your own energy on-site. We are building systems to do that, with an emphasis on efficiency and affordability. These should be common appliances."

The PowerSERG 2-80, also called "The Cube," connects to your natural gas line and electrochemically converts methane to electricity. Just larger than a dishwasher, the system sits comfortably in a basement, outside of a building, or on a roof, and—with no engine and virtually no moving parts—quietly goes about its business of providing power.

The initial breakthrough in the PowerSERG is in the fuel cells, which Wachsman, over a 25-year period, has improved to produce significantly more power at a lower temperature. More power means fewer cells to do the work of larger power generation systems, enabling the devices to be much smaller. Also, lower operating temperatures allow for the use of conventional materials in The Cube, driving costs down exponentially.

A solid oxide fuel cell developed at the University of Maryland Energy Research Center.Conventional solid oxide fuel cells operate as high as 950 degrees Celsius to run effectively. At this high temperature, the system can't be easily turned on and off, performance degrades, and the balance of the system requires expensive, high-temperature alloys that drive up prices.

Wachsman decreased the operating temperature of solid oxide fuel cells to 650 degrees Celsius, with future reductions likely to 300 degrees. At these lower temperatures, the system can turn on much more rapidly, operate with greater reliability, allowing The Cube to be built with conventional stainless steel parts rather than expensive alloys.

But Wachsman didn't stop there. Drawing upon scores of graduate and undergraduate students over two and a half decades, millions of dollars in research funding and a state-of-the-art laboratory at UMD, he created fuel cells that generate ten times the power at these lower temperatures than anything else on the market, cutting the system's cost by a factor of ten.

He did this by tackling nearly every aspect of the cell. He developed dual-layer electrolytes using new materials and dramatically improved the anode so it can withstand cycling the system on and off. No part escaped his expert touch, and the entire family of materials he created allows Redox to build systems for a wider range of applications.

"Over a 25-year time period, we have achieved major advances in both the composition of fuel cell materials and the micro and nanostructure of those materials," said Wachsman. "Putting these together has resulted in a cell that has an extremely high power density, on the order of two watts per square centimeter."

The first-generation Cube runs off natural gas, but it can generate power from a variety of fuel sources, including propane, gasoline, biofuel and hydrogen. The system is a highly efficient, clean technology, emitting negligible pollutants and much less carbon dioxide than conventional energy sources. It uses fuel far more efficiently than an internal combustion engine, and can run at an 80 percent efficiency when used to provide both heat and power.

Redox plans to release The Cube in 2014. The first version will be configured to 25 kilowatts, which can comfortably power a gas station, moderately sized grocery store or small shopping plaza. Additional power offerings will follow. Using different-sized fuel cell stacks, the company can offer The Cube at 5 kW, to provide always-on electricity for an average American home, or up to 80 kW in one system.

Additional information is available here.