Lowering costs and time to market are imperative if fuel cells are to succeed. With the advent of 3D printing, the production of fuel cells seems like a natural fit.
In May 2014, I had talked about how DTU Energy Conversion had modified a HP 1000 ink jet printer to print fuel cells rapidly and on the cheap.
This idea is not extremely new, however, as back in 2006, the MIT Technology Review was talking about a Redwood City, California company, EcoPlex Technologies, using 3D printing, “The process works by building up hundreds of layers of specially formulated inks containing various materials, such as polymers, metals, and ceramics, to form a three-dimensional structure, complete with hollow passages and chambers sealed inside… For each layer, the technology prints both the materials that will make up components of the final device and space-holder materials that will help support the next printed layer.”
Now, fast forward to December 2014 and IEEE Spectrum reports that Ramille Shah of Northwestern University has developed special inks to be used in the 3D printing of fuel cell components (see photo at top), “The lab of Ramille Shah, assistant professor of materials science and engineering, has developed new inks that a single 3-D printer can use to create the individual components of the solid oxide fuel cell—cathode, anode, electrolyte, and interconnects. The inks are a mixture of ceramic particles that make up 70 to 90 percent of the mix, a binder, and a cocktail of solvents that evaporate at different rates. The ink for the electrolyte, for example, is made of yttrium-stabilized zirconia (YSZ) particles, while the anode is YSZ nickel oxide.”
If you run a fuel cell in reverse, you will have a device that can split water to produce hydrogen. In 2014, researchers at the University of Glasgow created “…3D printed plastic components coated with silver paint” as a cheap and effective alternative for traditional fuel cell creation in order to produce hydrogen.
This week, the FCH JU has posted the creation of the Cell3Ditor project. The project aims for the commercial production of Solid Oxide Fuel Cell (SOFC) stacks using 3D printing to lower costs and time to market. The building of a traditional SOFC can involve over 100 steps and take over a year before the customer receives their product. With 3D printing this time-frame can be lowered to months with a cost reduction estimated to be around 60-percent.
As of today, entire autos have been manufactured using 3D printing (see the all3dp.com link below). My thinking is that in the near future 3D printed autos and fuel cell systems may be combined into one high-tech driving machine that can be customized to fit each driver’s individual needs. Ten years ago, this type of thinking would have been called “pie in the sky” but today I am simply calling it “pie.” 🙂