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Simplifying mass production of PEM fuel cell technology

Over-complicated components, fragmented supply chains, and a lack of significant national organisation have been identified by PA Consulting Group as slowing the development of the UK fuel cell industry, as Dr Stuart Gilby reports.

This article is taken from the June 2013 issue of the Fuel Cells Bulletin newsletter – check out the sample Digital Edition.

Fuel cells are desirable as energy conversion devices, because they are low or zero-polluting at the point of operation. They are also quiet and reliable, as the fuel cells themselves have no moving components.

However, while early stage commercialisation of polymer electrolyte membrane (PEM) fuel cells began in 2007, the technology has not been widely adopted due to a variety of reasons, including a lack of commercial viability, lack of infrastructure, limited production, and product longevity questions.

While much of the current research is focused on reducing system costs and improving efficiency, less attention is being paid to the possibilities offered by mass production and economies of scale. If fuel cells were manufactured in the millions, this would realise the dramatic cost savings needed to improve uptake.

So what factors are limiting the rate of fuel cell production? Recent studies by PA Consulting have identified over-complicated components, fragmented supply chains, and a lack of significant national organisation as the rate-limiting processes in the development of the UK fuel cell industry.

Simplification and standardisation

By increasing the focus on improving mass manufacturability of the fuel cell and components, including simplification or standardisation, a breakthrough could be achieved. Lessons learnt from other industries could also be used to mitigate risks during scale-up of the processes required for mass manufacture.

The oil & gas industry, for example, reduced costs by 15–30% and time to completion by 15–40% using component standardisation and project management techniques, according to a 2011 study by the Economist Intelligence Unit.

A rapid rise in mass-manufacturing capability can also be achieved through use of high-throughput manufacturing. This may require the design and production of bespoke, custom-designed machinery, but in many cases could be realised by adapting manufacturing techniques using standard manufacturing equipment.

For example, PA recently reduced a medical device company’s production line cost by 30%, a saving achieved by using off-the-shelf motors instead of custom-built motors, and tweaking the manufacturing process.

Other lessons could be taken from industries that have adapted their products while maintaining the ability to produce large volumes in response to market changes. Examples include the battery industry, where details from the scale-up of membrane separators could be used in mass-producing key fuel cell materials such as the proton-exchange membrane.

Worth focusing on

Areas of fuel cell manufacture that are ripe for simplification and mass manufacture scale-up include:

  • Bipolar plates and electrodes, which could be standardised across the industry.
  • Polymer electrolyte membrane and membrane-electrode assembly (MEA) manufacture, through increasing production volumes through mass manufacturing techniques.
  • Novel chemistry and gasket sealing components, using laser cutting techniques.

Companies such as Bac2 have developed novel conductive polymers for use in bipolar plates that can be moulded rather than using fragile graphite or metal plates. Both of the latter require expensive treatment such as milling or etching to complete the flow-field pattern.

Standardisation of components across the industry would also lead to an improved supply chain. Manufacturing costs such as tooling and waste could be reduced. Manufacturers would be able to produce large volumes of components and store them, rather than customised batch runs which are inherently more expensive.

A combined approach

In order to realise the 2020 prediction of fuel cell and combustion engine price equality, collaboration must occur. Fuel cell companies, manufacturers, and developers must act together to combine their purchasing power and refocus R&D on simplified design of components and systems that are compatible with mass manufacturing techniques.

Announcements by car manufacturers such as Toyota/BMW and Daimler/Ford/Renault-Nissan to share and develop common fuel cell technology show the way forward. Fuel cell developers now need to engage with other disciplines and sectors to achieve this – system integrators, product developers such as PA Consulting, and high-volume manufacturers can give advice and help avoid pitfalls on the route to mass scale-up.

Governments and roadmaps

Governments also have a key role to play in creating this collaborative environment, and recent efforts have included the high-profile hydrogen highway in California, the EU-funded Fuel Cells and Hydrogen Joint Undertaking (FCH JU), and the UK H2Mobility project. UK H2Mobility recently suggested that annual sales of fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) could reach 300 000 by 2030 if £400 million (US$636 million) was invested in a hydrogen refueling station network.

Other suggestions include creating a roadmap for building consumer confidence to create an increase in uptake of fuel cell systems when they become available. The roadmap should include educating consumers on fuel cell safety, environmental benefits, and longevity and performance of PEMFC vehicles.

Reducing platinum loadings and increasing efficiency are only half of the story for fuel cell commercialisation. It is equally – if not more – important to focus on component and system design for mass manufacture.

By simplifying product designs, a combination of conventional automated high-volume manufacturing processes and – where warranted – bespoke automation solutions has the potential to improve fuel cell production to a competitive level, and minimise the time to market.

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Energy storage including Fuel cells  •  Policy, investment and markets