On the path to green energy: Smart technologies and components from Fraunhofer ENAS pave the way to future production and use of hydrogen

Hydrogen is the fuel of the future. It is clean, sustainable and easy to store and transport, making it an alternative to fossil fuels that has the potential to advance the energy transition, secure a stable supply of energy and make a substantial contribution to protecting the climate. As an established research and development partner, Fraunhofer ENAS is supporting this path to the future by developing and manufacturing state-of-the-art hydrogen technologies.

Hydrogen is the key to more resource-efficient, cleaner energy. It is produced by splitting water into its constituent elements, hydrogen and oxygen. This process, also called electrolysis, can be done using renewable energy such as electricity from wind turbines. The resulting hydrogen is referred to as green or eco-friendly hydrogen because it does not produce harmful CO2 emissions.

Making hydrogen available for use as an energy source in Germany, Europe and worldwide requires effective electrolyzers, as well as efficient fuel cells to carry out the process of converting the hydrogen back into electrical energy and heat. Through its research and development of innovative key components for electrolyzers, fuel cells and hydrogen sensor concepts, Fraunhofer ENAS is helping to prepare the ground for a successful transition to green energy. 


Printed Functionalities: Innovative catalyst inks by Fraunhofer ENAS lead to greater efficiency when creating hydrogen systems

The core components of electrolyzers and fuel cells are conversion components arranged into cell stacks. These include a catalyst-coated membrane (CCM), which is combined with other components such as sub-gaskets, a gas diffusion layer and a porous transport layer to form a membrane electrode assembly (MEA). There are two bipolar plates on the ends of each cell.

If an electrolyzer membrane is later coated with functional catalyst and precious metal layers of platinum (cathode) and iridium dioxide (anode), this enables a controlled electrochemical reaction through which water can be split into its constituent elements, hydrogen and oxygen, by means of an electric current.

To revolutionize the production of CCMs and MEAs, researchers at Fraunhofer ENAS are using a unique formula to develop innovative catalyst inks that contain platinum and iridium. “These catalyst inks are unique because they can be inkjet-printed right onto the membrane without coming into contact with it, in a single process step, so the coating is applied in no time. Established coating processes, such as slot-die and doctor blade coating, are very time- and resource-intensive because they laboriously transfer the printed anode and cathode technologies onto the membrane via an intermediate substrate called a decal film. Our process is significantly faster,” Prof. Ralf Zichner, head of the “Printed Functionalities” Department at Fraunhofer ENAS, explains.

When developing the inks, the researchers particularly focused on printability: Despite containing precious metal nanoparticles of platinum or iridium dioxide, the ink has a low viscosity, similar to the consistency of water. This makes it an ideal candidate for the inkjet printing process. The ink is applied to the membrane drop by drop, which helps to make the print extremely precise and means that the reactive functional layer can be applied accurately and evenly to the membrane. “This means not only that every drop of ink is used efficiently, but also that there is no need to go through the process of recycling unused pieces of coating. We can also vary the catalyst load, the load on the electrochemically active precious metal-based nanoparticle surface, flexibly and on an individual basis,” says the researcher.

The combination of the inkjet printing process and the functional inks developed in Chemnitz produces cost advantages for manufacturers of CCMs and MEAs: The efficient use of the costly catalyst materials platinum and iridium dioxide means that resources can be economized and the issue of environmental protection can be monitored as early as the manufacturing stage.

“This allows CCMs and MEAs to be produced in large quantities, which could reduce manufacturing costs by up to 30 percent,” says Prof. Ralf Zichner, summarizing the advantages.

© Fraunhofer ENAS
The catalyst-coated membrane is one of the core elements in electrolysis for hydrogen production.

Active in hydrogen research: Fraunhofer ENAS is actively involved in projects and collaborations for the future

A number of publicly funded research projects are important milestones in achieving the German federal government’s ambitious energy and climate targets for 2045 under the National Hydrogen Strategy. This is where Fraunhofer ENAS, together with its national and international partners, comes in with its extensive experience of researching and developing individual microelectronic components in the hydrogen sector.

One of the lighthouse projects in which Fraunhofer ENAS is involved, funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) to implement the National Hydrogen Strategy, is the H2Giga-FRHY project. It aims to develop powerful, low-cost and mass-producible electrolyzers to meet the target of significantly increasing Germany’s electrolysis capacity by 2030.

Fraunhofer ENAS is also active in the following hydrogen projects for the future:

  • H2GO – National action plan for fuel cell production 
  • R2Stack – Developing processes and equipment for high-rate-capable, roll-based CCM and MEA manufacturing including assembly for the production of fuel cells
  • RollPriCat – Efficient manufacture of graded cathode catalyst layers using an inkjet printing process
  • IMMENSE – Inkjet manufacturing of CCMs for PEMFC by development of catalyst inks & their deposition
  • H2Safety – Thermometric voltage-based sensors to detect hydrogen in gases and materials
  • ReSIDA H2 – Smart fuel cells - sensor integration and efficient data analysis to regulate hydrogen fuel cells
  • H2elios – HydrogEn Lightweight & Innovative tank for zerO-emisSion
  • Newborn – Multi-MW Fuell Cell Propulsion System for Hydrogen Powered Aircraft

As a member of the Fraunhofer Hydrogen Network and a partner of REFERENZFABRIK.H2, a value-added community for the production of hydrogen systems, Fraunhofer ENAS is also a key player in hydrogen research and development, making it ideally connected within the hydrogen ecosystem.

Fraunhofer ENAS is making a crucial contribution to the further development of the hydrogen economy through its efficient technology and component development, and is supporting the global energy transition to a sustainable, climate-neutral future.

Do you want to join us on this journey and benefit from our many years of expertise? Then feel free to get in touch.

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