Gizmodo links to a press release from the University of Houston about breakthroughs in "cool" thin-film solid oxide fuel cells (SOFCs). TF-SOFCs combine lower cost than traditional fuel cells, smaller size, and lower temperatures (hence the "cool" appelation). The press release spells out some of the implications:
Compared to the macroscopic size of traditional fuel cells that can take up an entire room, thin film SOFCs are one micron thick the equivalent of about one-hundredth of a human hair. Putting this into perspective, the size equivalent of four sugar cubes would produce 80 watts more than enough to operate a laptop computer, eliminating clunky batteries and giving you hours more juice in your laptop. By the same token, approximately two cans' worth of soda would produce more than five kilowatts, enough to power a typical household.
Keeping in mind that one thin film SOFC is just a fraction of the size of a human hair with an output of 0.8 to 0.9 Volts, a stack of 100 to 120 of these fuel cells would generate about 100 volts. When connected to a homeowner's natural gas line, the stack would provide the needed electrical energy to run the household at an efficiency of approximately 65 percent. This would be a twofold increase over power plants today, as they operate at 30 to 35 percent efficiency. Stand-alone household fuel cell units could form the basis for a new 'distributed power' system. In this concept, energy not used by the household would be fed back into a main grid, resulting in a credit to the user's account, while overages would similarly receive extra energy from that grid and be charged accordingly.
Sounds great. There are a few potential downsides, however. Firstly, this is still in the "works in the lab" phase -- let's keep our eyes open for announcements of actual application development. Secondly, the definition of "cool" is rather contextual -- normal fuel cells operate at 900-1,000° C, while these operate at a mere 450-500° C. My current laptop battery gets hot enough, thank you. Thirdly, as shown in the SOFC illustration at the top of this entry (from this 2003 NASA article discussing TF SOFC applications), one of the outputs from the fuel cell energy production process is our old friend CO2, at least when natural gas is used as the source fuel. None of these are deal-breakers, but they help us remain realistic about the system's prospects.