Skoltech researchers have used an inexpensive 3D-printing technique to demonstrate the manufacture of a ceramic part of a highly complex shape, which could be used in fuel cells, a promising technology for efficient and environmentally friendly electrical power generation. The intricate ceramic structure, which cannot be obtained by traditional manufacturing techniques, would enable fuel cells to produce more power so they could phase out more wasteful energy sources sooner. The study is reported in the journal Ceramics International.
One of the alternatives to burning natural gas or other fossil fuels at power plants or in combustion engines is using solid-oxide fuel cells. SOFCs can generate electricity for industrial facilities or homes, including in remote off-grid locations, as well as for boats, cars, and even satellites. The chief advantages are efficiency and resilience, as well as sustainability, while high operation temperatures and the need for new advanced materials are the factors hindering their widespread adoption.
SOFCs generate electricity by consuming methane or other hydrocarbons on site, right where the power is needed, so they are a good solution for backup power and other systems sensitive to outages. The fuel-to-power conversion in SOFCs does not involve combustion, pushing their electrical efficiency to about 60%, compared with 45% for a simple-cycle gas-fired power plant. In both cases some of the waste heat can be salvaged, boosting the efficiency, but the upshot is: As per 1 cubic meter of natural gas consumed, a fuel cell will yield more electricity than a power station.
As for the environmental benefits, combustion-less gas oxidation in a fuel cell emits no pollutants such as nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide or harmful aerosol particles with the exhaust gas. Also, carbon emissions in general are 40%-50% lower for a solid-oxide fuel cell running on natural gas compared with the national power grid, as reported by German and U.S. SOFC manufacturers.