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DOE grant to help Rensselaer improve fuel cell MEA production

Researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in upstate New York have won a federal grant worth $1.6 million, to develop new and improved methods of manufacturing the key component of a fuel cell – the membrane-electrode assembly (MEA).

The multi-year grant, awarded by the Department of Energy, aims to create novel technology and processes to enable faster and more cost-effective MEA manufacturing. An additional $870 000 in cost-share by project participants brings the total project budget to nearly $2.5 million.

‘The new system we plan to develop is essentially a high-speed, high-quality assembly process for fuel cell MEAs,’ explains Ray Puffer, principle investigator for the project, and program director for industrial automation at Rensselaer’s Center for Automation Technologies and Systems (CATS).

Working with a group of Rensselaer collaborators, Puffer will develop materials, designs and adaptive process controls for MEA manufacturing. The team will incorporate automated sensing technology in the assembly pressing process, to ensure that MEAs are produced with fewer defects and greater performance uniformity.

Another 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 different components of high-temperature PEM fuel cell MEAs. Ultrasonic welding uses high-frequency vibrations and pressure rather than heat to conjoin two pieces of metal or plastic.

‘To be cost-effective, the time it takes to manufacture a single MEA must be measured in milliseconds, or at most, a few seconds,’ says Puffer. ‘Similarly, the time it takes to assemble a stack must be measured in seconds or minutes, instead of hours.’

Partnering with Rensselaer are Arizona State University in Tempe; BASF Fuel Cell GmbH in Germany and Somerset, New Jersey; Progressive Machine and Design LLC of Victor, NY; and UltraCell Corporation in Livermore, California.

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