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Novel Low-Cost Conductive Coatings for PEM Fuel Cells

The Centre for Process Innovation (CPI), the UK’s technology innovation provider for process manufacturing, today announced that it has been collaborating with world-leading partners to develop novel, conductive coatings for proton exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cell bipolar plates. The NovCoat consortium is applying state-of-the-art technologies to accelerate the pace of fuel cell cost reduction. Intelligent Energy is leading this project in collaboration with CPI and the advanced coatings supplier Haydale, to develop new conductive coatings containing nanocarbons to replace the more traditional physical vapour deposition (PVD) methods.

There is increasing demand for the production of PEM fuel cells since they offer the benefit of clean, high efficiency electricity generation across a broad power range. Conventional metallic PEM fuel cell bipolar plates usually require the application of an electrically conductive coating to minimise resistive losses. Such coatings are presently applied either in a batch or continuous process usually using a variety of highly technical processes including thermal spraying, CVD and, most often, PVD. These approaches incur considerable cost; through labour associated with chamber loading and unloading, the process times required to achieve high vacuum, or through the capital investment required for continuous vacuum processing.

The 12 month NovCoat project has evaluated the technical feasibility and cost-saving opportunities of using low-cost, wet-coatings applied by high-throughput, ambient processes to replace PVD methods. The project has developed advanced coatings utilising functionalised nanocarbons (graphene and/or carbon nanotubes) as the primary electrically conducting component to improve z plane conductivity in line with USDoE automotive targets. These coatings were applied using roll-to-roll techniques to pre-coat low cost stainless steel foils, and post-coat after part fabrication. The electrical and physical properties of the resultant coating have now been evaluated.

The NovCoat project has successfully demonstrated the fabrication of nanocarbon coatings on stainless steel with performance similar to PVD coatings, and the feasibility of ambient, solution based roll-to-roll processes which will help drive output levels and permit major cost reduction.

This highly innovative project has both technical and commercial elements that are beyond state of the art. The commercial partners are exciting, high growth potential companies and have demonstrated functionalisation, dispersion, formulation and coating capabilities to deliver the project effectively.

Dr Steve Devine, Principal Scientist, Nanomaterials & Composites, CPI

Dr Christopher Dudfield, Chief Technology Officer at Intelligent Energy, said: “Intelligent Energy sees great potential in the application of new materials to accelerate the penetration of fuel cells into our target markets and is fully supportive of InnovateUK’s mandate to promote UK-based collaboration and innovation.”

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