If the fuel cell is to become the modern steam engine, basic research must provide breakthroughs in understanding, materials and design to make a hydrogen-based energy system a vibrant and competitive force.
Worldwide much effort is being made for the hydrogen and fuel cell future to come about. On the European scale, a genuine chance for emerging ideas to be funded was opened by the introduction of the “Future Emerging Technologies (FET)” in Energy topic in the 7th Framework Program. The FET spirit combines tangible objectives with highly innovative and ambitious research that goes beyond conventional paths. “Innovative Dual membrane Fuel Cell (IDEAL-Cell)” is a 4 year FET project (Grant Agreement 213389) that was carried out between 2008 and 2011.
IDEAL-Cell proposes a new innovative and competitive concept for a high temperature Fuel Cell operating in the range 600-700°C. The design is based on the junction between a PCFC anode/electrolyte part and a SOFC electrolyte/cathode part through a mixed H+ and O2- conducting porous ceramic membrane. Protons created at the anode progress toward the central membrane and meet Oxygen ions created at the cathode to form water, which is evacuated through the interconnected porosity network. Hydrogen, oxygen, and water are located in 3 independent chambers, thus avoiding all detrimental consequences linked to the presence of water at the electrodes (low fuel and electrical efficiency, interconnect corrosion, necessity for a gas counter-flow).
The IDEAL-Cell concept effects a considerable enhancement of the overall system efficiency (fine-tuning of the electrode catalytic properties, possibility of pressure application on both electrode sides, simpler and more compact stack-design with less sophisticated interconnects, more efficient gas pre-heating, simplified heat exchange system for co-generation, availability of high quality pure water for vapour-forming).
In order to eliminate eventual implementation risks, the IDEAL-Cell project was structured in two stages: Stage I - proof of the concept with GO/NOT GO decision, which was taken positively after the second year; Stage II - deeper insight into the concept and performance optimization. The ambitious work plan was fulfilled by combining complementary expertise and skills with accumulation of foreground knowledge in different scientific disciplines and technological sectors (academic research, applied research, materials supply, including 3 SMEs).
The performance of a FET project is a challenge with long term impact, since its conclusion is just a stepping stone for further projects and developments. Starting from the proof of a new concept, the innovative dual membrane fuel cell is heading towards industrial realization. This objective obviously cannot be fulfilled by a single team and during the span of a single four-year project. That is why it is of vital importance to have a clear vision of the level of maturity of the concept and its design, as well as a lucid strategy for further development and future tasks in the interest of the dual cell stakeholders. Today we may report, that in terms of the Technology Readiness Level Scale (TRL) introduced by the European Space Agency with its 3 basic stages: (i) Research, (ii) Development and (iii) Industrialization, the IDEAL-Cell project concluded at the beginning of Stage 2 (TRL4: validation in laboratory), where competence in up-scaling and industrial participation are beneficial.
The IDEAL-Cell project has made great strides with promising and encouraging achievements: proof of concept; development of technological approaches and procedures for further up-scaling; development of pre-prototypes. A promising novel direction, discovered during the implementation of the project, is the operation of the dual membrane cell as an energy conversion/storage device, i.e. as both a fuel cell and an electrolyzer. It combines innovation with current demands for accelerated use of renewable energy sources and corresponds to the highly ambitious FET spirit.
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