Cummins Power Generation, the division of Cummins Inc which produces backup and prime power systems, has received a contract for $20m from the United States Department of Energy’s (DOE) National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) to develop an affordable, compact and virtually pollutant-free 10 kW fuel cell module. The contract forms part of larger $74.9m DOE development contract which was announced in August.

Cummins Power Generation, working together with McDermott Technology Inc., intends to engineer a fuel cell power generation system for multiple consumer and commercial markets. Cummins said that the fuel cell system will generate low-noise, highly reliable power with significantly lower fuel consumption and exhaust emissions compared to existing fossil fuel technologies.

The Cummins/McDermott team has proposed to provide an additional $75.5m in funding the over ten-year, three-phase effort.

Paul Plahn, director of Advanced Product Development at Cummins Power Generation, said, “This contract will provide the basis for us to develop competitively priced stationary and mobile power generator sets utilizing next-generation fuel cell technology,” Plahn continued. “Our goal is to reduce the manufacturing cost of solid oxide fuel cell (SOFC) systems to that of existing power generation technologies. Once we have succeeded in meeting our commercial cost objectives, we believe that the performance attributes of these SOFC systems – high fuel efficiency, low emissions, low noise, high reliability and long life – will generate tremendous interest among our consumer and commercial customers alike.”

Cummins expects developments in its SOFC system will allow for their incorporation in system sizes from 10 kW to 250 kW and beyond.

Cummins Power Generation has received numerous grants in recent years from both the Department of Energy and the Department of Defence on the strength of the company’s technological expertise and environmental commitment. The 10-year fuel cell contract was issued through and is being managed by DOE’s National Energy Technology Laboratory.

Fuel cells operate by oxidizing a reformed fuel on the surface of a special ceramic substrate to generate direct-current (DC) electricity without combustion. The only waste products are water vapour and a small amount of carbon dioxide. Most fuel cells in current limited production require either very large and complex hydrocarbon fuel reformers to produce pure hydrogen or a supply of bottled hydrogen gas as a fuel source. The distribution of bottled hydrogen is not currently economical or practical.

A major advantage of SOFC technology is that it can be used with low-cost, compact fuel reformers that make it possible to substitute natural gas, LP, gasoline and diesel fuels in place of bottled hydrogen to power the fuel cells, resulting in high efficiency and very low emissions.

The Cummins/McDermott team’s initial design will include a fuel reformer that will convert LP or natural gas into a form of fuel usable by the fuel cell stack. Once the team has concluded the first phase of system design, engineering, component design and development, it will work toward full commercialization of the SOFC system.