The fuel cell program at the United States Department of Energy (DOE) National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) is focused on the development of low-cost, highly efficient, and reliable fossil-fuel-based solid oxide fuel cell (SOFC) power systems that can generate environmentally-friendly electric power with at least 90 percent carbon capture. NETL’s SOFC technology development roadmap is aligned with near-term market opportunities in the distributed generation sector to validate and advance the technology while paving the way for utility-scale natural gas (NG)- and coal-derived synthesis gas-fueled applications via progressively larger system demonstrations. The present study represents a part of a series of system evaluations being carried out at NETL to aid in prioritizing technological advances along research pathways to the realization of utility-scale SOFC systems, a transformational goal of the fuel cell program. In particular, the system performance of utility-scale NG fuel cell (NGFC) systems with and without carbon dioxide (CO2) capture is presented.

The NGFC system analyzed features an external auto-thermal reformer (ATR) feeding the fuel to the SOFC system consisting of planar anode-supported SOFC with separated anode and cathode off-gas streams. In systems with CO2 capture, an air separation unit (ASU) is used to provide the oxygen for the ATR and for the combustion of unutilized fuel in the SOFC anode exhaust along with a CO2 purification unit to provide a nearly pure CO2 stream suitable for transport for usage in enhanced oil recovery operations or for storage in underground saline formations. Remaining thermal energy in the exhaust gases is recovered in a bottoming steam Rankine cycle while supplying any process heat requirements. A reduced order model (ROM) developed at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) is used to predict the SOFC performance. The ROM, while being computationally effective for system studies, provides other detailed information about the state of the stack, such as the internal temperature gradient, generally not available from simple performance models often used to represent the SOFC. Such additional information can be important in system optimization studies to preclude operation under off-design conditions that can adversely impact overall system reliability. The NGFC system performance was analyzed by varying salient system parameters, including the percent of internal (to the SOFC module) NG reformation — ranging from 0 to 100 percent — fuel utilization, and current density. The impact of advances in underlying SOFC technology on electrical performance was also explored.

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