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Posted: March 25, 2009

New $1.6 million DoE grant supports fuel cell manufacturing innovations

(Nanowerk News) Researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute have won a $1.6 million federal grant to develop new methods for manufacturing a key fuel cell component.
The multi-year grant, awarded by the U.S. Department of Energy, aims to create new technology and processes for faster, more cost-effective manufacturing of fuel cell membrane electrode assemblies (MEAs). Comprised of a stacked proton exchange membrane (PEM), catalyst, and electrodes, MEAs are the heart and soul of a fuel cell.
“The new system we plan to develop is essentially a high-speed, high-quality assembly process for fuel cell MEAs,” said Ray Puffer, principle investigator of the project and program director for industrial automation at Rensselaer’s Center for Automation Technologies and Systems (CATS). “If successful, we anticipate this project will yield a major reduction in the time it takes to make MEAs, as well as improved uniformity, less defects, and lower manufacturing costs. The end result will be cheaper, more reliable fuel cells for everyone.”
Fuel cells are a promising green technology that convert a fuel, such as hydrogen or, less commonly, natural gas, into electricity via an electro-chemical reaction. In the case of hydrogen fuel cells, the only byproducts are water and heat, making it a true zero-emissions energy source. The prohibitive cost of producing and manufacturing fuel cells, however, have thus far prevented more widespread adoption and use of the technology. Typical fuel cell applications under development include portable electronics, such as laptop computers or tactical radios for the military, as well as with vehicles, and residential or industrial combined heat and power systems.
Like every mass-produced product, from automobiles to candy bars, it is imperative that every unit to roll off the manufacturing line look, perform, taste, and behave exactly the same. Fuel cell MEAs are no exception. Working with Rensselaer collaborators Daniel Walczyk, professor of mechanical, aerospace, and nuclear engineering, as well as CATS Director John Wen, professor of electrical, computer, and systems engineering, Puffer will develop materials, designs, and adaptive process controls for MEA manufacturing. The team will work to automate new sensing technology into the MEA pressing process, to help ensure less defects and greater uniformity of performance.
The second main objective is to reduce the time it takes to press and assemble MEAs. To accomplish this, Puffer and his team will develop a novel, robust ultrasonic bonding process for assembling and fusing together the different components of high-temperature PEM MEAs. Ultrasonic welding uses high-frequency vibrations and pressure, rather than heat, to conjoin two pieces of metal or plastic. Early ultrasonic pressing designs and experiments have been promising, Puffer said, and have the potential to reduce the pressing process of a single MEA to less than one second.
“To be cost effective, the time it takes to manufacture a single MEA must be measured in milliseconds, or at most, a few seconds,” Puffer said. “Similarly, the time it takes to assemble a stack must be measured in seconds or minutes, instead of hours.”
The new DoE grant awards $1.61 million over 42 months. An additional $870,000 in cost share by project participants brings the total project budget to nearly $2.5 million. Partnering with Rensselaer are: Arizona State University, of Tempe, Ariz.; BASF Fuel Cell GmbH, of Germany and Somerset, N.J.; Progressive Machine and Design, LLC, of Victor, N.Y.; and UltraCell Corp., of Livermore, Calif.
Source: Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute