HyFaB project: Manufacturer-independent fuel cell stack takes shape

Science and industry are currently pushing ahead with the industrial production of fuel cells for vehicles. For this purpose, the Research Factory for Hydrogen and Fuel Cells (HyFaB) is being established at the Centre for Solar Energy and Hydrogen Research Baden-Württemberg (ZSW) in Ulm. In it, experts develop the necessary prerequisites and processes for large-scale production. In cooperation with EKPO Fuel Cell Technologies (EKPO), the ZSW is currently implementing a generic fuel cell stack as a pre-competitive and manufacturer-independent development platform. The size, design and power density will be similar to the fuel cell systems used in the automotive sector today. Its components should be available for research projects and for companies from mid-2022.

“Fuel cells were already on the verge of market introduction twenty years ago. At that time, however, they failed primarily due to the availability of hydrogen. This is now changing fundamentally with the European Green Deal and the German Hydrogen Strategy,” says Prof. Dr. Markus Hölzle, ZSW board member and head of the Electrochemical Energy Technologies division in Ulm. Now the fuel cell must also be industrialized quickly so that it becomes available on the market in large quantities at low cost. This is the goal of the new ZSW project within HyFaB.

“With the ‘generic fuel cell stack’, a kind of universal tool for the technological further development of the fuel cell is being created. In addition, we can then also provide medium-sized companies with components or entire fuel cells for their own product development,” says Hölzle.

Pre-competitive offer to the industry

The reason for the pre-competitive offer to the industry is that the developers of commercial fuel cell systems generally do not disclose their operating data or material compositions, nor do they make fuel cell components available. However, this makes market entry more difficult for the mostly medium-sized suppliers. The generic fuel cell stack will eliminate this bottleneck, as operating data and components will be available to all interested parties. In a preliminary project with the Research Association for Combustion Engines (FVV), the ZSW has worked out what this stack, which can be used by everyone, should look like in a working group with experts from the automotive and supplier industries.

From the sketch to the hardware

The stack concept is designed for a maximum output of 150 kilowatts. This requires 500 individual cells, each with two metal bipolar plates, to build this generic fuel cell stack. The advantage of metallic bipolar plates is that they can be manufactured using forming production processes, thus enabling high quantities to be produced with short cycle times. However, the thin wall thicknesses of only a tenth of a millimetre with a length of over 40 centimetres per panel are challenging in terms of production technology.

The bipolar plates are crucial components of a fuel cell: on the two outer sides, the so-called cathode and anode, they ensure the even distribution of hydrogen and atmospheric oxygen. In parallel, the cooling water is fed through the inside of the plates. This is achieved by means of extremely filigree channel and web geometries as well as a manifold and sealing concept. These structures are simulated and optimized using computational fluid dynamics (CFD).

“Participation in this lighthouse project, the close contact with institutional research with the ZSW and the knowledge gained about series production processes as a result offers real added value for us. Above all, HyFaB’s highly interesting network for fuel cell stack production, for example with the ZSW or even with the Fraunhofer Institute ISE in Freiburg with its decades of experience in fuel cell research, is enormously important for the automotive and industrial locations of Baden-Württemberg, Germany and Europe. The close cooperation with the plant manufacturers involved in HyFaB opens up exciting new opportunities for us,” says EKPO CCO Julien Etienne.

The project is being funded by the Baden-Württemberg Ministry for the Environment, Climate and Energy through the Baden-Württemberg Automotive Industry Strategy Dialogue.

The HyFaB

In order to rapidly advance the mass production of fuel cells, the ZSW is establishing an open industrial platform at the Ulm site in the form of HyFaB to develop automated production and quality assurance procedures, factory acceptance tests and commissioning of fuel cell stacks. HyFaB is open to partners from the automotive and fuel cell supply industry as well as mechanical and plant engineering, especially small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).

HyFaB is a publicly funded project: the Baden-Württemberg Ministry of Economics is supporting a new building with 3,300 square metres at the ZSW site in Ulm in Lise-Meitner-Strasse with 10.4 million euros. Construction officially began on February 9, 2021. The Federal Ministry of Transport has announced a further 30 million euros for industrial projects on production and process research. In addition to the ZSW, Fraunhofer ISE from Freiburg and the VDMA (German Engineering Federation) are also involved in the HyFaB project.

Link to the webcam of the HyFaB construction site (scroll to the end in the Ulm tab with eLaB): https://www.zsw-bw.de/ueber-uns/standorte.html#c583

Climate-neutral with hydrogen and fuel cells

The demand for fuel cells will increase strongly in the future. This is partly due to the Green Deal adopted in 2019, which aims to make the European Union carbon-neutral by 2050. In Germany, this target is to be reached by 2045. Green hydrogen is a key element in this.

Investments of at least one trillion euros are planned to implement the European Green Deal. The adopted EU hydrogen strategy of 8 July 2020 envisages two phases: By 2024, at least six gigawatts of electrolysis capacity for converting renewable electricity into green hydrogen are to be built and one million tonnes of the green hydrogen are to be produced. By 2030, another 40 gigawatts of generation facilities will be added, and production is expected to rise to a level of up to ten million tons of hydrogen.

As early as 2030, renewable hydrogen and its synthetic derivatives such as e-kerosene are to be used on a large scale in all sectors that are difficult to decarbonise, such as industry and air, heavy goods and shipping transport. This in turn will drive the demand for fuel cells, especially in the latter two areas.

About the ZSW

The Centre for Solar Energy and Hydrogen Research Baden-Württemberg (ZSW) is one of the leading institutes for applied research in the fields of photovoltaics, regenerative fuels, battery technology and fuel cells as well as energy system analysis. Around 300 scientists, engineers and technicians are currently employed at the three ZSW sites in Stuttgart, Ulm and Widderstall. In addition, there are 100 scientific and student assistants.

The ZSW is a member of the Innovationsallianz Baden-Württemberg(innBW), an association of 12 non-university, business-related research institutes.

About EKPO Fuel Cell Technologies

EKPO Fuel Cell Technologies (EKPO), based in Dettingen/Erms (Germany), is a leading joint venture in the development and large-scale production of fuel cell stacks for CO2-neutral mobility. The company is a full-range supplier of fuel cell stacks and components used in passenger cars, light commercial vehicles, trucks, buses as well as in rail and marine applications. Within this context, the company is able to draw on the industrialization expertise of two established international automotive suppliers – ElringKlinger and Plastic Omnium.

The aim of the joint venture is to develop and mass-produce high-performance fuel cell stacks in order to further advance CO2-neutral mobility – whether on the road, rail, water or off-road.


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