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Fuel cells: meeting the challenge of creating products on a commercial scale

Bürkert’s Systemhaus network assigns a dedicated team of experts in design, materials and the specific industry to see the project through from cradle to launch

Tony Brennan looks at how fuel cell technology will develop and what it takes to develop concepts and prototypes.

The global focus on reducing our carbon footprint is challenging engineers and scientists to explore alternative power sources and develop them into viable products that can be integrated into everyday lives. 

The recent increase in electric vehicles is just the start; fuel cell technology is progressing quickly, but the design and integration of new components require considerable expertise.

The science behind modern fuel cells is simple enough. However, creating products on a commercial scale is a considerable challenge. Each application has specific requirements, from static power plants to automotive and aviation, the process of developing benchtop concepts into cost-effective production models requires expert knowledge and engineering skill.

Focus on fuel cells

Increasing pressure to decarbonise our environment and move away from fossil fuels has led to an increased focus on renewable energy as well as fuel cells, which offer an effective power source without harmful emissions. The diverse range of uses for fuel cells is matched by the designs required to integrate them with their applications.

In the terms of unit volumes, the number of stationary power supplies has remained steady over the past five years, with a gradual increase for transport applications. However, looking at the data for power output, the delivery of fuel cells in transport applications has grown rapidly over the same period. This has been supported by an improving infrastructure for hydrogen, which will be essential for sustained growth1. 

As manufacturers look to embrace fuel cell technology and deliver solutions for more applications, there is a need for greater development capacity. The process of identifying the most suitable fuel cell chemistry and creating a working prototype can be complex and time-consuming.

Proof of concept

The components required to build a bench-top proof of concept will have some common features with the finished design, but there is a need for greater data collection and variation of parameters. The initial design stages need visibility and control of mass flow, pressure and temperature associated with gases and water. The variety of sensors as well as valves used during design development and testing will be essentially the same as the prototype, but their form, size and weight will be considerably altered for the final build.

It is this dramatic difference between concept and prototype that requires considerable expertise and knowledge to deliver project expectations. Furthermore, the goals of a proof of concept are substantially different to those of the finished article, which demands a minimal footprint, optimised efficiency and high performance.

Depending on the application and the fuel cell chemistry, cooling circuits may be needed. In bench-top trials, this heat can be transferred to the atmosphere, but in final designs, it can be used for climate control so additional components will be required.

Sourcing expertise

Finding all of the measurement and control devices for these diverse applications can be a challenge, but by working together with a team of designers experienced and knowledgeable in fuel cell technology it can be easily overcome. Bürkert, for example, has over 60 years experience in creating control and regulating system modules for liquids and gases.

Component selection is a very important aspect of developing fuel cells. Based around a product range that offers low power consumption, a wide operating temperature range and excellent chemical resistance properties, Bürkert’s experts can create bespoke solutions for a range of applications.

Clearly, when dealing gases such as hydrogen and oxygen, safety must be at the forefront of any design and safety shut-off valves need to meet exacting standards of operation. Similarly, pressure regulating systems and the proportional valves that comprise the control infrastructure must deliver precision and reliability.

Moving to prototypes

During the development of bench concepts, mass flow controllers in combination with flow control valves enable initial goals to be achieved. Once the system’s parameters have been determined, the flow measurement aspect can be removed for the production phase, instead of using control valves that are calibrated to deliver the pre-determined flows.

Having developed the proof of concept, the process moves onto prototypes where bespoke components need to be developed and fit within a certain space. Bürkert’s Systemhaus network assigns a dedicated team of experts in design, materials and the specific industry to see the project through from cradle to launch.

This crucial process may involve many iterations in design and also needs to take account of mass production considerations. Throughout the project, continuous communication and the presence of a dedicated design team is essential for milestones to be met and the delivery of a successful product.

Racing pedigree

Bürkert has extensive experience in developing fuel cell technology and has been involved with the Forze Hydrogen Racing Team for several years, developing various solutions for gas metering and the monitoring of pressure and temperature. The Forze V had many improvements from Bürkert that helped to double the performance of the fuel cell compared to that on the Forze IV, while also delivering a 10% weight reduction.

Since then, Bürkert has continued to support the team, working on components for the Forze V, which will accelerate the 800 kg car from 0-100km/h in less than four seconds, reaching a maximum speed of 210 km/h and only leaving water behind it.

The fuel cell industry will continue to expand over the coming years as more solutions are developed for both stationary power sources and the transport sector. By working with market-leading suppliers, OEMs and system integrators will continue to overcome many challenges and make considerable contributions to decarbonising our environment.

Image caption: Bürkert’s Systemhaus network assigns a dedicated team of experts in design, materials and the specific industry to see the project through from cradle to launch

1. The Fuel Cell Industry Review 2019, E4tech

Tony Brennan, Field Segment Manager Gas & Micro at Bürkert Fluid Control Systems UK & Ireland.

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