The Return of Major Players to the Solid Oxide Fuel Cell Market Could Lead to Growth, Finds IDTechEx

Author: Dr Conor O’Brien, Technology Analyst at IDTechEx

Following several decades of research and development, fuel cells are beginning to enable the promise of low-emission power generation, with specific success seen for proton exchange membrane fuel cells (PEMFC). However, the major negative aspect of PEMFC is the necessity for ultra-high purity hydrogen. Solid oxide fuel cells (SOFC) overcome this issue due to the ability to operate on multiple fuels and, as such, offer promise in a wide range of applications. Initially struggling to gain commercial traction, many large players are now (re)entering the SOFC market. Will this new activity drive SOFCs toward the fore of a clean energy infrastructure?

The new IDTechEx report, “Solid Oxide Fuel Cells 2023-2033: Technology, Applications and Market Forecasts”, provides a comprehensive overview of the solid oxide fuel cell market, including an assessment of the key technology trends, major players and also includes granular 10-year market forecasts for solid oxide fuel cell demand (MW) and market value (US$), segmented by application areas. IDTechEx project the market value to reach US$6.8 billion by 2033.

SOFC annual installations (MW), including historical and forecast data. The onset of high-volume manufacturing projects is indicated. For further information on the solid oxide fuel cells market, see the IDTechEx report
SOFC annual installations (MW), including historical and forecast data. The onset of high-volume manufacturing projects is indicated. For further information on the solid oxide fuel cells market, see the IDTechEx report “Solid Oxide Fuel Cells 2023-2033: Technology, Applications and Market Forecasts”

A SOFC stack consists of hundreds of individual cells, with each cell made up of an electrolyte material between an anode and cathode, which are, in turn, between interconnects. High operating temperatures are a double-edged sword for SOFCs; enabling fuel flexibility due to the capability to internally reform light hydrocarbons but introducing stresses caused by any mismatched thermal expansion coefficients of neighboring components. Due to this, SOFCs are best suited to continuous, steady state operation to minimize the change in temperature during ramp up/down. The capture of the hot exhaust can be used to provide thermal energy in an operating mode referred to as combined heat and power (CHP), raising the overall efficiencies of the fuel cell system towards 90%.

Despite these positive and promising aspects of SOFCs, with opportunities in many markets ranging from utility-scale power generation to off-grid residential applications, many large players exited the market between 2010 and 2018. Siemens Energy was an early mover in the market in the early 21st century, but the focus shifted to PEM fuel cells and electrolyzers. Delphi produced a SOFC auxiliary power unit (APU) for heavy-duty trucks circa 2010, but little commercial activity has been seen recently, including after its acquisition by BorgWarner. Ballard is a recognizable name in the fuel cell industry and was one of the first major players to enter the SOFC market when it acquired Protonex in 2015. However, this new solid oxide division was quickly divested in 2017, leading to the formation of Upstart Power. Perhaps the most notable movement was seen when LG Fuel Cell ceased operations alongside Rolls Royce Fuel Cell Systems in 2018, despite reportedly investing over $350m into SOFC R&D and launching a prototype system.

Haldor Topsoe was another company to cease activity when the focus was shifted to solid oxide electrolyzers in 2014, however arguably, the first green shoots of recovery for the market were seen when Haldor joined the SOFC4Maritme project in 2021 with a focus on marine applications. GE Power Conversion also returned to the market in 2021. Previous activity was seen between 2006 and 2014 before a partnership was announced with Ceres Power in 2021 – also focusing on the marine sector, particularly cruise ships. Ceres operate a licensing model and have entered into partnerships with several large players, such as Bosch, Weichai, and Doosan, with high-volume manufacturing of the licensed SOFC technology to commence in the coming years. In terms of internal R&D, Cummins is developing SOFC technology of its own and stated to IDTechEx that system availability is set for 2024. Regulation and economic policy are driving the demand for fuel cells in the APAC region specifically, and a JV has been established between Noritake, Toto, and NGK Spark Plug, targeting the commercial launch of SOFCs by 2025. Further information regarding partnerships, ongoing research and development, and technological trends is provided in the IDTechEx report.

So does the movement of big players towards the SOFC market, either entering or returning, indicate impending growth for the sector? The hype must be tempered by comparing to the status of PEMFCs, which are the leading solution for fuel cell power in the mobility sector for a variety of reasons, while also being better suited to emergency power than SOFCs due to shorter ramp up times and longer lifetime across multiple cycles. Despite strong opportunities in sectors requiring 24/7, always-on power, such as commercial and industrial applications, the annual installation for SOFCs is expected to be an order of magnitude lower than that for PEMFCs across the coming decade. However, these promising opportunities, coupled with fuel flexibility and the onset of high-volume manufacturing by big players, could accelerate the growth of the SOFC market and change the outlook of the fuel cell industry over the coming decade.

For more details on the SOFC technology, market trends, and key and emerging players, see the IDTechEx market report “Solid Oxide Fuel Cells 2023-2033: Technology, Applications and Market Forecasts”, with further coverage of marine applications for fuel cells provided in “Fuel Cell Boats & Ships 2023-2033: PEMFC, SOFC, Hydrogen, Ammonia, LNG”.

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