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RPI to Research Robotic Assembly of Fuel Cell Stacks

A new research project at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute is tackling the challenge of the robotic mass production of fuel cell stacks.

The project will combine the resources of RPI’s Flexible Manufacturing Center (FMC) and Center for Automation Technologies and Systems (CATS), was recently supported with a major research equipment award from the Robotics Industries Association (RIA). As one of four universities selected in a nationwide competition, Rensselaer will receive three new industrial robot systems to help develop a flexible robotic process to produce fuel cell stacks.

The US Department of Energy has suggested that the cost of manufacturing fuel cells is the single biggest obstacle on the road to the hydrogen economy. We are addressing a component that represents a major portion of the total systems cost: the stack assembly in a proton exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cell.

—Raymond Puffer, FMC co-director

It is currently common to take as long as a full day to assemble and leak-test a single stack. To be commercially viable, stack assembly must be accomplished in minutes, not hours.

—Stephen Derby, FMC co-director

Derby, Puffer, and their colleagues already have applied their expertise in automating manufacturing processes through a collaboration with PEMEAS, a supplier of high-temperature membrane electrode assemblies (MEAs) for PEM fuel cells. In 2002 the researchers developed a fully automated $5 million MEA pilot manufacturing line at the company’s plant in Frankfurt, Germany, where these MEAs were formerly put together by hand.

Materials in the PEM stacks are thin, flexible, soaked in corrosive acids or highly sensitive to changes in humidity and temperature, making material handing more difficult. The researchers will use existing automated methods to gain a deeper understanding of how PEM stack materials respond to various handling techniques, while also researching new ways to sense material properties throughout the process.

RPI has been expanding its work with fuel cells for several years. As one example, Brian Benicewicz, director of the New York State Center for Polymer Synthesis at Rensselaer, has developed a sol gel process that produced a new membrane for PEM fuel cells from polybenzimidzole (PBI).

Conventional PEM cells are based on Nafion membranes, a polymer membrane that requires hydration. This had led to some design complications for fuel cells, capping the operating temperature and requiring systems for ongoing hydration.

The PBI membranes, which do not require hydration, work reliably and for long periods of time up to 200º C. The PBI research was funded by PEMEAS Fuel Cell Technologies, based in Germany, and Plug Power, a Latham, N.Y., fuel cell company. PEMEAS is already marketing products based on this technology; Plug Power is in development while Benicewicz continues PBI research, finding ways to improve its performance and tailor it to various applications.



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