National Physical Laboratory

NPL analysis extends lifetime of new low-cost fuel cell

Hydrogen fuel cells hold huge potential as a source of clean, distributed energy generation. They efficiently convert hydrogen into electricity with only water as a by-product. Despite this promise, they remain expensive to produce and struggle to compete with energy from the grid.

Bramble Energy is addressing the cost issue with an innovative new design. It has designed a proton exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cell which can be produced cheaply using manufacturing methods and materials from the printed circuit board (PCB) industry.

By using established production infrastructure, manufacture can be cheaply outsourced to PCB manufacturers anywhere in the world, so production can be easily and cost-effectively scaled up and down.

Challenge

Unlike grid energy, fuel cells require an upfront investment from the user. Manufacturers therefore need to demonstrate efficiency and durability to give confidence that the cell will offset this initial investment over its lifetime. To understand durability, cells are tested under accelerated degradation conditions to simulate how they will degrade over their lifetime.

Bramble's fuel cell uses a passivation layer to increase durability – a thin coating which protects the copper components from the corrosive environment of the fuel cell.

Bramble discovered that the passivation layer was not performing as expected. To understand why, they approached NPL through the Analysis for Innovators (A4I) Programme, a £4M Innovate UK programme which helps companies access measurement and analysis expertise, in order to solve a problem which could improve their productivity or competitiveness.

Solution

NPL has world-leading capabilities in fuel cell measurements, as well as corrosion testing. Combining these areas of expertise, NPL carried out a range of analyses of Bramble's materials to help them understand their degradation mechanisms, and recommend areas for improvement.

During the nine-month project, Bramble was able to access NPL's state-of-the-art imaging and electrochemical testing facilities, including electron microscopy and electrochemical analysis, as well as its expertise in fuel cell degradation mechanisms.

The most important finding was the unexpected presence of silicon rods scattered around the surface, causing localised stresses. Bramble worked with their manufacturer to identify the source of these rods – an innocuous skimming process – and developed a new manufacturing approach which will eliminate the problem.

Rigorous analyses of samples by NPL before and after degradation testing, and subsequent recommendations, provided Bramble with insight into degradation mechanisms, and helped them tailor their materials selection to improve durability. Testing to date on the new passivation layer suggests these changes have slowed the degradation and will significantly improve durability.

Impact

Bramble has to date been developing products for the low power portable power market, however the scalability of the design offers more lucrative opportunities in higher power applications such as automotive and combined heat and power (CHP).

For these industries, Bramble must demonstrate durability of tens of thousands of hours in use. This project helped them identify and resolve an issue which was leading the product to degrade too quickly, and so limiting commercial viability. The resulting improvements to durability extended the product lifetime and therefore the competitiveness of their fuel cell, whilst also speeding time to market.

Erik Engebretsen, Head of Engineering at Bramble Energy, said: "The A4I project has been invaluable in unlocking world-leading facilities and expertise which would have otherwise been inaccessible to us. NPL's combination of materials testing and corrosion expertise make them well equipped to do this type of analysis. The knowledge gained helped us overcome a problem in our manufacturing process, improving the durability of our fuel cell and making it a much more competitive technology."

Last Updated: 14 Jan 2019
Created: 14 Jan 2019

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