Modeling, design, development, and control of a pilot-scale continuous coating line for proton exchange membrane fuel cell electrode assembly



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Fuel cells are electrochemical energy devices that convert the chemical energy in a fuel into electrical energy. Although they are more efficient, clean, and reliable than fossil fuel combustion systems, they have not been widely adopted because of manufacturing challenges and high production cost. The most expensive component of a fuel cell is the membrane electrode assembly (MEA), which consists of an ionomer membrane coated with catalyst material. Best performing MEAs are currently fabricated by depositing and drying liquid catalyst ink on the membrane, however, this process is limited to individual preparation by hand due to the membrane’s rapid water absorption that leads to shape deformation and coating defects. This work models the swelling and drying phenomena of the membrane and coating during manufacturing, and then applies the results to develop and control a continuous coating line for the production of defect free fuel cell MEAs. A continuous coating line can reduce the costs and time needed to fabricate the MEA, incentivizing the commercialization and widespread adoption of fuel cells.

Membrane swelling is a three-dimensional, transient, coupled mass transfer, heat transfer, and solid mechanics problem. Existing models describe the membrane’s behavior in operating conditions, but none predict the behavior during manufacturing. This work develops a novel physics-based model that describes the behavior of the membrane and coating in a continuous manufacturing scenario and incorporates effects that are missing from existing models.

A model that can predict wrinkles, the most commonly observed defect during manufacturing, is presented. Simulation results from the above models are used to design and develop an improved continuous MEA coating process that includes pre-swelling and two-stage drying of the coated membrane. A prototype pilot-scale coating line to implement and test the improved coating process is designed and constructed.

Finally, a Linear-Quadratic-Gaussian type controller is developed using the physics-based model of the manufacturing process to optimally control the temperature and humidity of the drying zones, and its effectiveness when implemented on the coating line is discussed.