UK closed-loop fuel cell component recycling is developing

Fuel cell recycling (Foto: Axion Consulting)

Bramhall, UK — Advanced techniques for recovering a high-value polymer from fuel cell membrane electrode assemblies (MEAs) has brought closed-loop recycling of these components a step closer, according to Axion Consulting. The Manchester-based resource recovery specialist developed the process in the collaborative Recover R&D project with fuel cell components supplier Johnson Matthey Fuel Cells and nonwoven materials manufacturer Technical Fibre Products. The project was co-funded by the UK’s innovation agency, Innovate UK.

The financially-viable process is low hazard and extracts PFSA (Perfluorosulfonic Acid), a fluorinated membrane polymer, from the MEAs of Proton Exchange Membrane (PEM) fuel cells without incineration or the creation of hydrogen fluoride gas, a corrosive and toxic substance. This membrane acts as a proton conductor, allowing the passage of electrical current to provide power.

The current incineration route does not recover the membrane as it is burned and lost.

Metal-rich material for further refining

Platinum recovery from the MEAs is also easier with no loss of yield as the process generates a metal-rich material for further refining. Axion Consulting Director Roger Morton explains: “The unique aspect of our recycling route for this challenging co-polymer ensures the successful recovery of both platinum and PFSA without any nasty by-products. This is now being processed commercially for Johnson Matthey Fuel Cells.”

The process, he says, offers three major benefits: economic recovery of valuable and critical materials; preservation of resources for reuse in new fuel cell products and elimination of the technical challenges and cost of tackling harmful emissions.

Significant quantities of end-of-life fuel cells

Roger Morton adds: “This closed-loop recycling route will be essential when fuel cells become the power packs of the future for vehicles in both remote and domestic locations. The hydrogen economy will continue to develop and grow; it is the future. Significant quantities of fuel cells will reach the end of their lives in 10 to 15 years’ time so the technological capability to recover their valuable resources will be crucial.”

Evaluation is also underway on developing a take-back system for end-of-life fuel cells – such as those from forklift trucks, mobile phone masts, electric vehicles and in small portable power packs for laptops and other products.

Axion’s Senior Engineer Sam Haig comments: “This innovative project with Johnson Matthey Fuel Cells and TFP is developing many new technical skills at Axion which we are applying to several other complex multi-component high-value products, including batteries.”

Source: Axion Consulting