Research Under Way for Robotic Assembly of Fuel Cells

A research project at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) is under way to address the expense of mass producing hydrogen fuel cells by using robots to assemble fuel cell stacks. The Robotics Industries Association (RIA) gave a research equipment award to the project, which will combine the resources of Rensselaer’s Flexible Manufacturing Center (FMC) and Center for Automation Technologies and Systems.

Rensselaer, one of four universities selected in a nationwide competition, will receive three new industrial robot systems to help develop a flexible robotic process to produce the fuel cell stacks. “The U.S. Department of Energy has suggested that the cost of manufacturing fuel cells is the single biggest obstacle on the road to the hydrogen economy,” said Raymond Puffer, co-director of the FMC. “We are addressing a component that represents a major portion of the total systems cost: the stack assembly in a proton exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cell.” In a PEM fuel cell, hydrogen is split into protons and electrons on one side of a thin polymer membrane. The membrane allows protons to pass through, but electrons are forced to go around, creating a flow of electrical current. On the other side of the membrane, the electrons recombine with the protons and with oxygen from the air, creating water and heat as the only byproducts. To produce enough energy for most applications, multiple fuel cells are combined in a fuel cell stack. To begin addressing the PEM stack assembly process, the researchers plan to create a flexible robotic ‘workcell,’ which will include various pieces of robotic equipment designed to handle materials with great precision. The RIA award includes three full industrial robot systems, donated by the Kuka Robot Group, and collision-avoidance sensors for the systems, provided by RAD, a robotics accessories supplier. “Many of the materials in PEM stacks are thin, flexible, soaked in corrosive acids, or highly sensitive to changes in humidity and temperature,” Puffer says. “This makes material handling orders of magnitude more difficult than methods used for simple flexible materials such as paper.” The researchers will use existing automated methods to gain a deeper understanding of how PEM stack materials respond to various handling techniques, while also researching new ways to sense material properties throughout the process.
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