Hospitals, big box stores, and other large facilities could save money and help the environment by getting off the grid and switching to solid oxide fuel cells. At least, eventually.

These cells would run off of preexisting natural gas pipes, converting the gas into fuel to keep the cell charged. Research by the Department of Energy and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL), published in the journal Fuel Cells, illustrates the potential for such cells.

Projected designs would be more efficient than other systems and would help to offset the 10% increase in electricity generation that the U.S. is projected to need in the next decade. Provided the lifecycle of the cells can be improved from the current two or three years to at least six to eight years, these cells could reduce the CO2 emissions of a given facility by up to 15% and reduce electricity costs by as much as 30%. The study’s authors estimate that if just 20% of users relied upon solid oxide fuel cells instead of the grid, it would reduce carbon emissions by 22%.

These cells are more efficient than most fossil fuel systems we use to generate electricity at the moment. The designs coming out of PNNL would allow for recycling excess heat, which could even be used to provide heat for buildings. In fact, the systems would be so efficient that users might even be able to sell electricity to the grid, allowing for an additional payoff.

Currently, researchers are working on improving the technology. Current cells only last about two years, and that lifecycle needs to increase in order to be of real benefit. The study assumed a 15-year lifespan for the mathematical models used, and that will require some work. In the meantime though, figuring out how to utilize solid oxide fuel cells is something that researchers and business owners should probably keep in mind.

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