This week we’re sitting down with Subhash C. Singhal of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL), a world leader in the study of solid oxide fuel cells and one of the lead organizer of our upcoming Glasgow conference. Listen as we explore the culture of national laboratories and industry, the future of solid oxide fuel cells, Singhal’s upbringing in India, and more!
Five Questions with Subhash C. Singhal
“Science has been in my bones from a very early age.”
What are your thoughts on the progress and challenges for the effective use of clean energy?
I believe a lot of progress has been made in developing renewable electricity sources; solar power, wind power, and even ocean thermal—and of course the fuel cells. Efficiencies are increasing for both solar cells and fuel cells, but the biggest challenge remains their cost. The percent of electricity produce by solar, wind, and fuel cells will increase with time, but only—in my opinion—incrementally. Mainly because the infrastructure we already have utilizes fossil fuels.
What’s happening with solid oxide fuel cells?
Much of the research in the past three decades has been on increasing efficiency and reducing cost for better and cheaper materials, cheaper fabrication methods, and also on building practical power systems. Solid oxide fuel cells are very fuel flexible in contrast to other kinds of fuel cells, like alkaline fuel cells. Solid oxide fuel cells can use a variety of fuel: natural gas, coal gas, and even liquid fuels like diesel and gasoline. Solid oxide fuel cells are really, really flexible. They have very high efficiency because they operate at high temperatures. A lot of attention in the past few years has focused on the high temperature fuel cells.
Is the field of solid oxide fuels cells a promising field for students?
Yes. You know, when I started my first job at Siemens, there were no universities doing research in fuel cells. Now there are fuel cell courses being taught in universities and there is academic research worldwide devoted to fuel cells. The field of fuel cells is very interdisciplinary. It involves chemistry—particularly electrochemistry—physics, and several branches of engineering. It’s an exciting area. There’s a lot of room for invention and innovation. Once they graduate in any of these fields related to fuel cells, they can go into academia or industry. I think it’s a very good field for students to get involved in today.
Who have been some of your mentors during the educational phase of your career?
My Ph.D. advisor Wayne Worrell was a tremendous influence on me—not only professionally, but also as a friend. He was also instrumental in my joining and becoming active in The Electrochemical Society in the mid-1970s. Another person who I admired was Professor Bruce Wagner. Both Wayne and Bruce were not only at the top of their fields, but they were true gentlemen.
How has your transition from working at Siemens to Pacific Northwest National Laboratory been?
It’s very different to work in industry than the national labs. The culture is really different. In industry—like Siemens—everyone is really focused and accountable for achieving their assigned tasks and developing a product for the company. There we didn’t do research for the sake of research. In the national labs, however, there’s much more freedom to explore your own ideas and to do different types of research. That’s what makes it quite exciting to work in a national lab.
Singhal is the lead organizer for solid oxide fuel cells at the upcoming ECS Conference on Electrochemical Energy Conversion & Storage with SOFC-XIV.