Automation Takes On Fuel Cell Manufacturing

At Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Ray Puffer heads up work to develop new automation processes aimed at driving down fuel cell manufacturing costs.

Raymond H. Puffer Jr.
Raymond H. Puffer Jr.

Fuel cell technology holds potential to become a significant alternative energy source for powering equipment ranging from laptop computers to automobiles. But for many applications, fuel cells today are not cost-effective, due in part to relatively high manufacturing costs.

It’s an issue that is high on the mind of Raymond H. Puffer Jr., P.E. As program director for industrial automation at the Center for Automation Technologies and Systems (CATS) at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), in Troy, N.Y., Puffer oversees all industrial automation research and development (R&D), and has led numerous R&D projects for industrial clients. He also heads up a nationally recognized industrial R&D program at CATS aimed at improving manufacturing methods for fuel cell technology.

Puffer was a speaker at the International Robots, Vision & Motion Control Show, held June 9-11 in Rosemont, Ill, where Automation World Managing Editor Wes Iversen caught up with him for an interview.

Automation World: How long have you been working on research involving automation of fuel cell manufacturing, and how is the work funded?
Ray Puffer: I’ve been working on that for 10 years now. We started off with contractual R&D funding from a German company, which today is part of BASF. But over the years, it has blossomed into a major area of focus within RPI, and within our Center. We receive corporate funding from BASF and also from a number of other companies.

We also have a prestigious award from the NSF (National Science Foundation) called an IGERT program—for integrative graduate education and research traineeship. It’s basically an NSF program to reinvent how we prepare Ph.D.s to enter into industry. We are the only IGERT in the country focused on fuel cells. We’re in our fourth year right now, and that provides support for 28 PhDs doing fuel cell research. The total value of that is close to $7 million.

About a year ago, we also received the first-ever DOE (Department of Energy) grant for fuel cell manufacturing, which is another multi-million dollar, multi-year research program. I’m the PI (principal investigator) on that, and I have a co-PI, Dan Walczyk, and we have a team of 10 researchers working on the program.

AW: What does the DOE grant cover?
Puffer: The focus of that research is on applying adaptive process controls to the manufacturing process for membrane electrode assemblies (MEAs), which are key components of fuel cells, and also to investigate the feasibility of using ultrasonics for manufacturing processes.

This is particularly important, because first of all, from the adaptive process control perspective, we have variability of all the incoming materials that go into an MEA. And yet we use the exact same manufacturing process, which, unsurprisingly then, results in variations in the properties of the MEAs and may impact the performance when you assemble a large number of them into a fuel cell stack.

The ultrasonic work that we’re doing is also important, because today, to produce an MEA, you hot press the materials, and the cycle time is anywhere from one minute to five minutes. Yet, because of the potential volumes, our goal is to get that down to something that’s measured in milliseconds, not minutes, and we believe ultrasonics will be key to that.

AW: We’re at a robots show. What are the opportunities for robotics in fuel cell manufacturing, and what are some of the challenges?
Puffer: When you start scaling up production, if you get to extremely high production volumes, with very stable designs, materials and processes, then you typically look at hard automation as a solution. But it’s going to be a significant amount of time before we get to that point, and when you have uncertainty related to process, or the materials, the design, the architecture, the size, all of those issues, then you really need to focus on flexible automation, and so robots become an important cornerstone.

But there are many, many challenges for the use of robotics, especially for the kinds of materials that we deal with. The membrane technology that we work with is based upon PBI, or polybenzimidazole, which is a very high-temperature polymer. For our application, this PBI is formed into a sol-gel (gelatinous-solid combination) membrane. The PBI is actually a very small percentage of the membrane content, and the rest of it is all phosphoric acid. So we have this material that is gelatinous, it’s highly doped with acid, which is corrosive to many materials that you typically find in robots, and it is highly hydrophilic. It loves water, and when it absorbs water, it distorts, and that causes problems. And it likes to stick to things. So it’s not easy to work with.

We were able to solve these problems using some good robotics expertise, and the process was implemented on a pilot scale manufacturing line that we developed for BASF that is located in Frankfurt, Germany. That line came online in September 2002, and it has been in continuous operation ever since. It’s a fully automated MEA manufacturing line that has two large Cartesian robots with machine vision systems. Over the years, we have made many upgrades to that line. And because we developed the line with a focus on modularity and flexibility, we have been able to implement numerous changes and upgrades to the line very quickly. We have also developed a second generation pilot line located in Somerset, N.J., which has more than twice the capacity of the line in Frankfurt.

Since 2002, we’ve been working on new manufacturing processes, because even though we had flexibility and modularity in the design, we still used a lot of hard tooling, which is an extreme cost driver. So we have been working to get cost out of the system by going as much as possible to information-driven manufacturing. And we have been able to reduce the cost for product changeover by about 90 percent. That’s by doing things like going from hard tooling for cutting materials to use of lasers, by better design of the tools, better materials, and very importantly, by achieving major reductions in the time required to change over from one design to the next. Because the tools are very high precision, and because we were dealing with all this acid, the material selection was very limited, and previously, it would commonly take 10 to 12 weeks to get new tooling, and it was very expensive. Now, with information-driven manufacturing, we can change from one design to the next in five minutes.

AW: The ultimate goal is to make fuel cell manufacturing cost-effective enough that the technology can compete with other alternative energy technologies. How far are we from that?
Puffer: Depending on who you listen to, it could be anywhere from right around the corner to many years in the future. There are today numerous operating prototype systems. If you go to Iraq or Afghanistan, there are fuel cells powering solders’ devices in the field. If you look at fork trucks today, it’s very easy to cost-justify switching to a fuel cell hybrid fork truck instead of natural gas and battery-powered fork trucks. There are large fuel cells at waste treatment facilities, and there are fuel cell powered buses and trucks.

Everybody agrees that automotive is a killer application, but in my opinion, it will be a very long time before we see substantial numbers of fuel cell vehicles—at least a decade, I think. The DOE is focusing most of its work on the automotive application. But we as an industry need to focus on other, more near-term applications, in order for the industry to be able to succeed and live long enough to see the automotive application.

PROFILE

Raymond H. Puffer Jr. has served for more than 20 years in a variety of roles at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s Center for Automation Technologies and Systems (CATS), where for the past four years, he has served as program director, industrial automation. Prior to joining CATS, he completed more than 20 years service as an Army officer, progressing to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel and holding key technical positions. Puffer, a registered professional engineer and a certified acquisition manager, holds a bachelor’s degree from the United States Military Academy and a Master of Science in Mechanical Engineering from Colorado State University.

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