The future of clean energy relies on sustainable energy sources.
Hydrogen fuel cell technology is one of the fastest-growing options for powering cars, buildings, and machines of the future.
Bipolar plates play a crucial role in the functioning and efficiency of hydrogen fuel cell technology.
There are applications for both metallic and non-metallic bipolar plate materials in different use cases, as each type offers unique benefits for fuel cell applications.
Elcon specializes in the customized etching of aluminum, stainless steel, or titanium bipolar plates for use in polymer electrolyte membrane (PEM) fuel cells and electrolyzers.
In this article, we take a deep dive into why metallic bipolar plates are ideal for hydrogen fuel cells and how Elcon's photochemical etching can benefit your hydrogen electrolyzer or fuel cell stack.
What Are Bipolar Plates?
Bipolar plates are the unsung heroes of the fuel cell world!
Nestled within the fuel cell stack — a towering structure composed of numerous fuel cells — the humble bipolar plate fulfills multiple critical functions to convert hydrogen into energy.
- First and foremost, bipolar plates establish electrical connections between the individual fuel cells. They conduct electricity between the anode of one cell and the cathode of the next cell.
- They facilitate the flow of electric current, ensuring a seamless transfer from one cell to another, harnessing the collective power of all the fuel cells in the stack and utilizing it effectively.
- The flow channels on the surface area of bipolar plates serve as conduits to distribute reactants, fuel, and oxidants (O2 and H2) evenly throughout the fuel cell stack.
- The bipolar plates assist in dissipating excess heat generated during the electrochemical reactions, preventing overheating and ensuring the system operates within safe temperature limits.
- They also remove the excess water vapor and electrical or thermal energy discharged as a by-product of the chemical reaction in the fuel cells.
- Finally, the plates also seal the fuel cell system from the outside environment and protect the key components of the fuel stack.
The next time you think about a hydrogen fuel cell, remember the role that the humble bipolar plate plays in this technology!
Elcon manufactures photochemically etched metal bipolar plates for various fuel cell and electrolyzer technology applications.
What Are Bipolar Plates Made Of?
Bipolar plates fulfill various functions as Proton Exchange Membrane Fuel Cells (PEMFC) components. However, for the bipolar plates to function efficiently, they must be fabricated using suitable materials.
These plates can be fabricated from both metallic materials as well as non-metallic materials.
Essentially, the material is selected based on specific characteristics. The most important conditions are that the material must exhibit good electrical conductivity, corrosion resistance, and mechanical strength.
Ideally, metals such as titanium, aluminum, and stainless steel are used for fabricating bipolar plates as they fulfill these conditions. Bipolar plates may also be fabricated from non-metallic materials such as graphite and carbon.
At Elcon, we prefer high-strength and durable metals like titanium, aluminum and stainless steel to manufacture chemically-etched fuel cell plates that can withstand extreme environments and deliver good electrical and thermal conductivity. To improve corrosion resistance, Elcon also offers a variety of plating materials, such as gold, platinum, and carbon nanofibers.
Our electrochemical etching process offers fuel cell and electrolyzer plate engineers many advantages to combat their design, time, and cost challenges in producing efficient fuel cell bipolar plates.
Why Use Bipolar Plates in Fuel Cell Technology
New-generation PEM fuel cells are changing the narrative around clean, sustainable energy to power the ever-increasing demand for efficient fuel-cell vehicles and affordable high-energy consumption infrastructure such as high-tech buildings, offices, and data centers.
There are several reasons to use metal bipolar plates, such as those manufactured by Elcon Precision.
Efficient, clean energy
Fuel cells efficiently convert the chemical energy of hydrogen into electricity. They generate electricity continuously — long as there is a fuel source available. Most significantly, the only by-products are excess heat, and water, making them highly clean and environmentally friendly.
Clean energy technology has made remarkable progress since General Motors introduced the Hydrogen Fuel Cell Electrovan, widely recognized as the first vehicle powered by a hydrogen fuel cell.
Compliance with green energy regulations
Today, new-generation hydrogen fuel cells are gaining popularity due to increasing regulations around clean energy, the pressing need to move to alternative sources of power and the advances and manufacturing cost improvements in hydrogen fuel cell technology.
For instance, Hyundai plans to invest USD 6.4 billion to establish a large-scale production capacity of nearly 500,000 fuel cell systems for commercial and passenger vehicles by 2030.
More good news — the adoption of fuel cell technology is expanding beyond the automotive industry. Budweiser has ordered over 800 fuel cell-powered trucks for long-haul deliveries.
Lower cost of production
We manufacture metallic bipolar plates using low-cost materials such as stainless steel, titanium, or aluminum.
Our etching process creates high-precision channels on the surface of the fuel cell plates and employs low-cost digital tooling with no initial setup costs. This brings down the operational cost of production of the fuel cells.
Photochemically etched bipolar flow field plates provide engineers with design flexibility as multiple channel levels and patterns can be etched on either side of the plate, including headers, collectors, and port features.
Unlike other manufacturing processes, photochemical etching does not create mechanical or thermal stress that may affect metallurgical properties.
Etched metallic plates create burr-free surfaces that are flat, consistent, and do not compromise stack bonding.
With these advantages, bipolar plates can unlock the immense potential of hydrogen fuel cells.
Connect with our materials experts to learn more about our etched bipolar plates.
How Are Bipolar Plates Used in Fuel Cell Technology?
Bipolar plates in hydrogen fuel cells find applications across various industries where there is a need for clean and efficient energy conversion.
The fuel cell market was valued at USD 4411 million in 2022, and it is projected to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 32.59% between 2023 to 2028. This reflects the growing demand for hydrogen fuel cells across industries.
Here are some common use cases for fuel cell plates:
Bipolar plates are widely used in hydrogen fuel cells for automotive applications. They play a critical role in powering electric vehicles (EVs) by converting hydrogen fuel into electricity.
The aerospace industry has the potential to use hydrogen fuel cell technology to provide a clean and sustainable power source for advanced aircraft. Bipolar plates can be utilized in fuel cells for auxiliary power units (APUs) and as power sources for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).
Electronic devices & sensors
There is a potential to use small-scale hydrogen fuel cells for portable devices and remote sensor-based equipment. Bipolar plates enable compact and lightweight fuel cell designs, making them suitable for portable and off-grid power needs.
While this list of use cases is not exhaustive, it gives us a fair indication of the possible industries that hold potential for fuel cell plates. The versatility of fuel cell technology using bipolar plates and its promise of an alternative, clean energy source provide an enticing peek into the future of energy.
Customize Your Bipolar Plates With Elcon Precision
There is tremendous potential for fuel cell technology in the future. However, the key to successfully achieving this potential is to develop cost-effective methods to produce the bipolar plates that are critical components of fuel cells.
Elcon Precision has the necessary capabilities and experience to produce components like bipolar plates in high volumes while ensuring precise control over key production steps.
Connect with our materials experts to understand how Elcon's photochemical etching process for bipolar plates can benefit your hydrogen electrolyzer or fuel cell stack.