The world is almost ready for fuel cell technology. Scarcely a person on the planet is not concerned about environmental damage from burning fossil fuels.
In addition, government levies and upward pressure on exchange prices for oil and gas are bolstering the economic argument for generators, vehicles, CHP schemes and more that leverage the renewable nature and benign emissions of the fuel cell.
The technology is now well-proven, through extensive laboratory and prototype testing. It is known to work, and to be effective and usable in many applications.
Of course the technology must continue to develop, in order to deliver further power density and efficiency enhancements.
However, it is imperative that the unit cost of fuel cells themselves should be reduced – ultimately to consumer commodity levels. Manufacturing capacity must also increase dramatically to meet anticipated world-wide demand.
Lower costs and higher production volumes are closely linked. Hence, fuel cell production methods must become faster and more highly automated.
For this, the industry needs high-speed, accurate, repeatable, cost-effective equipment, capable of supporting high-yield processes that will deliver large numbers of high-quality fuel cells, quickly, and at low unit cost.
Process challenges of Fuel Cells:
The dominant fuel cell chemistries of the moment are the Proton Exchange Membrane (PEM), solid oxide and direct methanol.
Their constituent parts - particularly the membrane, electrodes and backing layers of a PEM fuel cell – require very thin deposits of materials such as perfluorocarbon sulfonates (PFSA) and platinum/carbon/ionomer catalysts.
The physical and chemical properties of these layers are critical to achieving fuel cell action.
Variations in the characteristics - such as changes of thickness or the existence of voids or pin holes in the PEM cell’s membrane, for example - can impair performance and lifetime and may permit catastrophic failure by permitting uncontrolled mixing of hydrogen with oxygen.
Hence these materials must be deposited in controlled and repeatable quantities onto a substrate that is typically flexible and may also be porous.