What are solid oxide fuel cells?


Quick Answer

A solid oxide fuel cell, or SOFC, uses hydrocarbons to generate electricity with a cathode, an anode and an electrolyte. Unlike normal batteries that have a limited shelf life, SOFCs always generate electricity if the fuel supply continually runs through the material. Most SOFCs operate at temperatures between 1,100 and 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit.

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Full Answer

Oxygen is pumped through the anode, electrolyte and cathode to become negatively charged. Then, the oxygen ion reacts with the fuel to create electricity, steam and carbon dioxide. SOFCs convert as much as 60 percent of their chemical energy to electricity, whereas portable gas-powered generators operate at roughly 18 percent efficiency.

Different varieties of hydrocarbon fuels can be used in SOFCs, including natural gas, biogas, diesel, unleaded gasoline, methane and even carbon monoxide. These fuel cells tolerate chemical impurities in fossil fuels such as ammonia and chloride contaminants.

SOFCs can become even more efficient when combined with traditional, steam-driven electric turbines. Steam is a by-product of the reaction, and it can be collected in pipes to create a high-powered stream of usable steam to generate even more electricity. SOFCs are already enclosed systems, making carbon-capture techniques easier than with coal-driven power plants.

More advanced technology lowers the temperature at which SOFCs become viable. Lower temperatures need fewer specialized materials such as ceramic; instead, these systems can use stainless steel parts, which cost much less to manufacture.

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