Investigation of Low Temperature Solid Oxide Fuel Cells for Air-Independent UUV Applications

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Unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) will benefit greatly from high energy density (> 500 Wh/L) power systems utilizing high-energy-density fuels and air-independent oxidizers. Current battery-based systems have limited energy densities (< 400 Wh/L), which motivate development of alternative power systems such as solid oxide fuel cells (SOFCs). SOFC-based power systems have the potential to achieve the required UUV energy densities, and the current study explores how SOFCs based on gadolinia-doped ceria (GDC) electrolytes with operating temperatures of 650°C and lower may operate in the unique environments of a promising UUV power plant. The plant would contain a H2O2 decomposition reactor to supply humidified O2 to the SOFC cathode and exothermic aluminum/H2O combustor to provide heated humidified H2 fuel to the anode.

To characterize low-temperature SOFC performance with these unique O2 and H2 source, SOFC button cells based on nickel/GDC (Gd0.1Ce0.9O1.95) anodes, GDC electrolytes, and lanthanum strontium cobalt ferrite (La0.6Sr0.4Co0.2Fe0.8O3- or LSCF)/GDC cathodes were fabricated and tested for performance and stability with humidity on both the anode and the cathode. Cells were also tested with various reactant concentrations of H2 and O2 to simulate gas depletion down the channel of an SOFC stack. Results showed that anode performance depended primarily on fuel concentration and less on the concentration of the associated increase in product H2O. O2 depletion with humidified cathode flows also caused significant loss in cell current density at a given voltage. With the humidified flows in either the anode or cathode, stability tests of the button cells at 650 °C showed stable voltage is maintained at low operating current (0.17 A/cm2) at up to 50 % by mole H2O, but at higher current densities (0.34 A/cm2), irreversible voltage degradation occurred at rates of 0.8 - 3.7 mV/hour depending on exposure time. From these button cell results, estimated average current densities over the length of a low-temperature SOFC stack were estimated and used to size a UUV power system based on Al/H2O oxidation for fuel and H2O2 decomposition for O2. The resulting system design suggested that energy densities above 300 Wh/L may be achieved at neutral buoyancy with seawater if the cell is operated at high reactant utilizations in the SOFC stack for missions longer than 20 hours.