The US Department of Energy (DOE) has awarded researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) a $1.6 million grant to create new technology and processes for faster, more cost-effective manufacturing of fuel cell membrane electrode assemblies (MEAs). Consisting of a stacked proton exchange membrane (PEM), catalyst, and electrodes, MEAs are the core of a fuel cell. One of the barriers to more widespread adoption and use of fuel-cell technology is the high cost of their manufacture.
Ray Puffer, principle investigator of the project and program director for industrial automation at Rensselaer’s Center for Automation Technologies and Systems (CATS), in collaboration 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, will develop materials, designs, and adaptive process controls for MEA manufacturing.
The new system we plan to develop is essentially a high-speed, high-quality assembly process for fuel cell MEAs. 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.—Ray Puffer
The team will work to automate new sensing technology into the MEA pressing process, to help ensure fewer 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. Similarly, the time it takes to assemble a stack must be measured in seconds or minutes, instead of hours.—Ray Puffer
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.
The CATS is supported by the New York State Foundation for Science, Technology and Innovation (NYSTAR) as a designated Center for Advanced Technology.