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Sustainable Manufacturing

Fuel for the future: What to look out for in fuel cell production

Published on 10 March, 2022 in Sustainable Manufacturing

ACES companies need smart production strategies and technologies to use the hydrogen potential.

When people talk about sustainable mobility, the first thing that comes to mind is battery-powered e-cars. Fuel cells or direct hydrogen burners are complementary technologies that often fade into the background, yet have a lot to offer when it comes to CO₂ reduction and market options.
The German and European automotive industry takes a similar view: in a recent Expleo study, 80 percent of the car manufacturers surveyed stated that they consider hydrogen-powered vehicles to be more environmentally friendly and cleaner than electric cars. 64 percent believe that the first hydrogen cars ready for series production will be on the market in the next two years.
What is needed, however, is a more innovative spirit on the part of manufacturers and suppliers, support from politicians, and investments in better energy infrastructure. What is also important: companies in the ACES environment – ACES stands for autonomous driving, connectivity, electrification, and shared mobility – need efficient and future-proof production facilities, keyword Smart Factory. Production lines must be automated and digitalized, manual processes eliminated and innovations driven forward.

Truly sustainable hydrogen production only with renewable energy

Modern and automated battery and fuel cell production, supported by robotics, sensor technology, and AI, is at the heart of sustainable strategies. The battery is the central element of both hydrogen drive and "classic" e-vehicles, albeit significantly smaller and differently constructed. In addition to e-drives and hydrogen, e-fuels, synthetic fuels, should also be mentioned in the mix of sustainable drive types. However, to use hydrogen in a truly sustainable way, the H₂ fuel must be produced with electricity from renewable sources (electrolysis), which is not yet fully feasible in large quantities.

Some big automotive companies too cautious about hydrogen

Unlike battery cells, fuel cells are not dependent on raw materials such as lithium or cobalt. In fuel cells, the central material is iron. Another advantage is that hydrogen as a molecular substance can be easily stored, transported, and made available for applications. Hydrogen drives are already being used in more and more commercial vehicles such as city buses, which is due in particular to the fact that they offer more space for the required drive unit. Hydrogen drives are still relatively rare in "normal" cars, which is partly due to the lack of H₂ filling stations, but also due to the industry's hesitant implementation.

Increasing automation of electrolysis and fuel cell production processes

There is no way around New Energy Vehicles, so-called NEVs if we are to even come close to achieving the Paris climate targets. Hydrogen can be produced from renewable energies in a CO₂-neutral way and converted into electrical energy in fuel cells. However, there are several challenges to be overcome in the production of these fuel cells to ensure efficiency and precision. This applies to both the production of the individual components and the assembly of the stacks through to the manufacture of the entire system.
Widespread deployment of electrolysis and fuel cell technology requires product and process innovation to reduce production costs to drive the deployment of this technology. Scaling production volumes while maintaining uniform quality requirements is needed. Flexible and scalable production lines that can be quickly and easily adapted to individual requirements are advisable. Approaches are needed to reduce the production costs of fuel cells, as this is the only way this technology will be accepted in the longer term.

Battery expertise supports fuel cell production

Unlike battery cell production, where processes have already been automated for many years and are constantly being further developed, fuel cell production is still almost at the beginning. This is mainly because hydrogen technologies do not yet have the application and acceptance that increased production requires. Many workflows are therefore carried out semi-automatically or even manually. To make hydrogen applications more attractive, increased automation in manufacturing is urgently needed. Since battery and fuel cell manufacturing are similar in many respects, it is advisable to rely here on a partner who is familiar with automated battery cell manufacturing. In addition to the technology and know-how, system integrators and machine builders are also needed to jointly drive this topic forward. A particularly critical process in battery and fuel cell production is stacking - this is where errors, such as leaks, can occur.

Factory of the Future: Modernized production processes, innovative technology

The cornerstones of future-oriented fuel cell production to promote sustainable mobility, are the procedures and technologies of the Smart Factory (production of the future). They make it possible to comprehensively modernize production and rationalize supply chains from the ground up in parallel with the expansion and conversion to new drive technologies. Innovative industrial robotics, mobile robots, and cobots, edge computing, sensor technology, the coupling of mechatronics and IT, and augmented reality (AR) are some examples of this factory floor of the future.
The highest possible degree of digitalization is the key to success so that the manufacturing process can optimize itself independently. But traceability is also essential, ideally to be able to trace every single layer of a fuel cell to conclude where production is not running optimally.
Another pillar is artificial intelligence (AI), as it can be used to unleash new efficiency potential from highly complex production chains. Used correctly, AI can help business leaders in the automotive sector to better understand their processes. The information collected by AI and sensor-based technologies leads to new insights to optimize processes inside and outside the company. One example is predictive maintenance: it can be used to detect wear patterns, peculiarities, and anomalies, and thus counteract machine failures, downtime, and errors. Particular attention should also be paid to seamless and flexible intralogistics processes, keyword transparent supply chain.

Conclusion: Collective measures needed

In the coming years, a mix of different drive technologies will establish itself on the market. This includes the fuel cell as an important building block. For alternative technologies of the future to gain momentum, it is now up to politicians, manufacturers, and service providers to pull together, optimise framework and production conditions, and promote digitalisation and automation. OMRON can support here, with our many years of expertise in this field.

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  • Henry Claussnitzer

    Henry Claussnitzer