Challenges in Electrolyzer Development and Translation from Lab to Product

Monday, 6 October 2014: 11:20
Expo Center, 1st Floor, Universal 1 (Moon Palace Resort)
K. E. Ayers (Proton OnSite)
Transition from discoveries at the bench scale to commercial product often involves much more time, expense, and trial and error than initially expected.  Even when successful, subsequent scale up in size and production volume can have additional complications and unexpected issues.  Electrolyzer systems are a good case study to demonstrate these challenges, based on the many technical elements that have to come together for a successful product.

Proton OnSite was founded in 1996 with the goal to develop and produce affordable distributed hydrogen through proton exchange membrane (PEM) electrolysis.  Over the last decade and a half, Proton has commercialized products of larger and larger scale, and has continued to advance performance and reliability in the existing platforms.  The range of stack sizes in production or under development is shown in Figure 1.  Proton also maintains a strong technology roadmap including projects ranging from near term advancements to existing products to longer term product development and new technology development.  This talk will discuss several of the challenges in transitioning the output of successful programs such as Small Business Innovative Research (SBIR) projects to commercialization, even when progress within the SBIR program has reached a fairly high level of technology readiness and testing fidelity.

Proton currently manufactures electrolyzer systems from the membrane electrode assembly level through stack and system assembly.  Our position as the product integrator is somewhat reversed from many small/large business interactions, in that we are the technology expert and developer, and source components from very large companies.  We are the central entity with access to information from many sources, and have to determine how to combine the various pieces together.  This process can be very challenging especially when trying to leverage federal funding across diverse, non-overlapping programs and fit them together synergistically.  For example, Proton may work with one collaborator on a new membrane material with improvements in one parameter, while having awareness of another collaborator’s success in another area.  Based on confidentiality agreements with both partners, the information resides only with Proton, making it difficult to leverage both advancements simultaneously.  In addition, a catalyst approach may work very well but may require special adjustments to work with an existing formulation or membrane.  However, particularly on the electrolysis side, there have not been sufficient funds to build larger, team-based, collaborative projects which take technology all the way from concept to pilot scale.

In addition, in development of cell embodiment parts, often initial prototypes are made with different techniques than the final design intent, in order to prove the form, fit and function of the part before finalizing expensive tooling or running a large amount of parts on production level equipment.  Therefore, there can be significant additional work involved once a design has been proven, to adjust tolerances, investigate interactions with adjacent parts, and validate the design.  Definition of inspection criteria and quality control methods can also add development time and expense.