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Challenges in Fuel Cell Manufacturing

by , | Oct 6, 2021 | Sustainability

Jim Cahill

Jim Cahill

Chief Blogger, Social Marketing Leader

In an earlier podcast, we highlighted the challenges and opportunities in the supply chain of hydrogen in transportation-related applications. The fuel cell is what translates the energy carried within hydrogen molecules into electricity that can power electric motors for transportation and other applications.

Emerson’s Nicolas Marti joined me in this Emerson Automation Experts podcast to discuss some of the challenges and opportunities in the fuel cell manufacturing process.

We hope you enjoy our conversation and learn more about this and other sustainability-related initiatives between Emerson and its customers to drive safer, more efficient and more reliable manufacturing and production operations. Visit the Sustainability section on Emerson.com for more on the technologies and solutions to help you drive more sustainable operations.


Jim: Hi, everyone. I’m Jim Cahill, and welcome to another Emerson Automation Experts podcast. In a previous podcast, Denka Wangdi discussed how the last 15 years, hydrogen production has increased and has heightened the need for more fuel stations. Today, Emerson’s Nicolas Marti joins me to discuss fuel cells that use hydrogen as an energy carrier. Welcome, Nicolas.

Nicolas: Hello, Jim.

Jim: Well, it’s great to have you here with us. So for our listeners’ benefit, and to get started, can you share a little bit of your background and path to your current role with us at Emerson?

Nicolas: Yeah, Jim, sure. So, I joined Emerson nine years ago, 2012, as a sales engineer, selling fuel devices, Rosemount, Micro Motion, and some analytical solutions. Then I moved to TESCOM group, with also a niche market for hydrogen, with a lot of experience on there, to handle the sales in the south of Europe. And today, since two years, I am in between marketing and sales to handle business development for alternative energy, which is biogas, biomethane and some others, and then hydrogen. And besides this role, I am a subject matter expert for hydrogen in Europe, and also Air Liquide global coordinator.

Jim: Well, thanks for that background, Nicolas. Let’s get into it now. Can you briefly share the benefits of fuel cells, and how exactly they use hydrogen as an energy carrier?

Nicolas: Yeah, sure. So within the production with Denka, the fuel cells is the power generation, it produces electricity, and there are tons of applications, very innovative. So in short, you have a storage of H2, maybe in gaseous phases, but also liquid or even solid-state, air supply, and then you mix up those two before the fuel cell at the right pressure, flow and temperature through a calculator, and that provides electricity. The main usage of the fuel cells are the mobility part, and that’s very important for the decarbonization, and that could even replace carbon fuel and chemical battery power. We provide product to components, trains and ferries and also airplanes, and also bicycles. As example, our brand TESCOM is working for more than 25 years to the forklift application with hydrogen, we’ve long field experience. Maybe liquid phase, and that’s very innovative, driven for decarbonization in aeronautics, that’s a very restrictive area and markets, and that’s cryogenic, so it’s minus 253 degrees. That’s very innovative, and that will be a good way to transport and to carry hydrogen overseas, and that’s very economic between, for example Chile and the U.S., or Morocco to Middle East, to Europe.

Jim: Okay, so we can see the big use for fuel cells in transportation, what about in other applications?

Nicolas: Yeah, for example, that’s very innovative, we can store H2 in solid phases. And I can take the example of a company who is doing…who is providing electricity to heat up water into a chalet in the Alps, in the Italian Alps. This company is producing emission-free storage of green hydrogen, that’s modular, our system to operate different applications as emergency power of green energy supply for regional shale, but marine and other solar shale applications. The technology is metal-powder-based hydrogen, it goes to a fuel cycle from producing, storing, and converting it back to electricity. That represents a very effective way to store energy over long periods in small tanks, and suitable for residential sector. The principle is to produce through solar panels in the summer, and to use the energy in the winter. Other applications for the fuel cells could we also backup power in remote areas like deserts, or even data centers, and we have some examples, as Facebook, L’Oreal or Microsoft, already using hydrogen.

Jim: Well, that sounds like a lot of versatility, and the storage capability of the energy really enables a lot of applications, like you described there. So as we get into the production of fuel cells, what are some of the challenges the manufacturers face?

Nicolas: I would summarize the customers are targeting or highlighting for challenges, safety, upgrading the technology, scaling up supply chain, and selecting the right product for the right application. Around safety, the mobility providers are concerned about their system to operate safely and efficiently, to maximize utilization of the hydrogen. The second one is for the customer to share, to look a way to expand their hydrogenic expertise. They look for help to leverage emerging gasses, and liquid hydrogen technology, and design best practices to develop and optimize current solutions. Another, third challenge is really scaling up when you have a prototype, and you need…you have a lot of orders coming in. Even the OEM needs to scale up the resources at the factory, so it goes to supply chain reliability within the growing demand. Definitely reducing supplier amount is very important. And last but not least, vehicle manufacturers are concerned to have consistent pressure and continuous supply of hydrogen to the fuel cells. That’s three technical challenges, and we need to meet these requests.

Maybe Emerson is helping there on the wide range portfolio of products. They are reliable and safe operation, also compact and lightweight for fuel cells on board, that’s very important, but also robust, because we look for long lifetime, and reduced downtime. We are putting a lot of engineering resources, design and engineer to launch new products, to understand the market needs, and even to in on customization of products.

Jim: That’s a good summary of some of the technical challenges, and ways to overcome. What about for these fuel cell OEMs, the challenges they face as it relates to their supply chain and their choice of technology partners?

Nicolas: I think that’s a very critical point. You know, that’s a new market, and a lot of developments are coming from universities, more research and development labs, small OEMs, the prototype is made from different vendors, and then comes the time from standardization and scaling up, and where our large volume needs to be needed and manufactured. So those customers look for compatibility to reduce supplier amounts, to extend technical capabilities, to reduce the cost, to get the product on time. It’s like the automotive market, large volume per month. Also, maybe we will support the after-sales, the product is delivered in the place, and shipped in another on the globe, and that’s important to pick the product for after-sales, and to have the resources.

So as a key supplier on this market, we are investing in research and development who have this solution in the market. But besides all those challenges, I think the most important one is safety. We talk about 700 bar, even 1,000 bar in gaseous phases, and even norms and standards, how to be set, and our companies bring technical experience to these discussions, and we should allow our engineers to even share more on this group of discussions. Nevertheless, H2 is not really new, and within Emerson we have experience for decades, hydrogen is not a new vector, so we have the know-how to help on this matter.

Jim: It’s interesting with the pressures and everything else involved, I guess with fuel cells are more new, but hydrogen in general, you’re right, in different industries they’ve been using it for decades. So, what can an OEM do to scale their operations to keep up with the growing market demand, and not impact their supply chain?

Nicolas: So, the OEMs are to come as a big market manufacturer, starting from a couple of units to large volume. And to describe in Europe, the OEMs are making a lot of giga-factories to make a lot of product for the fuel cell. I can name Cummins in Germany, or Symbio in France who are making new factories. So it’s not only the factory, it’s the people there, they need to hire a lot of people who engage a lot of competencies, so they need some reliable partners. We can help there to co-develop solutions with our experts, and then deliver really the product and the solution for this market.

Jim: Yeah, it sounds like you definitely, with the scale up and how it’s expected to grow, that you need a reliable partner in all of that. So, I guess in the fuel cell manufacturing process, what are some solutions to the difficulties these operations face when trying to, I guess, maximize hydrogen usage, and maintain optimum pressure levels within the fuel cell?

Nicolas: I think the difficulty there is the molecule itself, hydrogen is a very small molecule, and could leak everywhere. So what we have built up needs to be redesigned also, that’s the most important. So leakage must be avoided in this application, and that comes to safety, so we need to develop a new product to avoid this issue.

Jim: Yeah, those two little hydrogen atoms stuck together, that’s not very big at all, so yeah, leakage I can see being a big challenge there. So, what are some operational improvements a manufacturer can implement to decrease the time risk and expense?

Nicolas: I think this OEM needs to have a reliable partner, as I mentioned, they need to have the product on time, really a good schedule, a one-stop-shop is the solution, reducing supplier amount, and also the standardization of the design, really to pick the right product and the right solution. They’re risking the project to use the factory who can make large volume, and also expense, the cost of production. Today, the cost of green hydrogen is way too much expense at the moment. Everybody needs to co-develop and to redesign the solution to meet those targets.

Jim: Yeah, I guess on the technology curve for doing this, there’s still a ways to go to get that efficiency. But you’re right, there’s a lot more people working on it, and continue to drive down those costs over time. So, how is safety a factor in fuel cell production, especially for OEMs leveraging emerging gas and liquid hydrogen technologies?

Nicolas: So in gaseous phases, H2 is a real challenge because of the pressure, as I mentioned. There is a tight pressure on corrosion and embrittlement, where you need to select the right product and the right material. The customer needs to work with people who know this market and who have experience, long field experience even in H2 production, refueling stations, and some others. Also, LH2 is also a way to carry hydrogen for long distances, and it’s, I guess, easier to use LH2 because of the pressure and the density, and so on. And LH2 is not really new, we can use what we have developed from liquid natural gas, and that’s a way to use the know-how of the product, and the…or we can design solutions for the liquid hydrogen opportunity.

Jim: Yeah, with what’s been learned over the years from liquefied natural gas, and the way it’s handled and everything in there, I imagine liquefied hydrogen takes some of that learning, and for those using it, helping with the distribution of it.

So, this has been a great discussion around fuel cells, let’s wind things down. I always like to ask and put our subject matter experts on the spot, and what should I have asked you today that I didn’t ask you?

Nicolas: Oh, I think we discussed many points, but maybe we can highlight some usage. And I’m living in Paris, I’ve seen a couple of weeks ago, the Eiffel Tower from electricity made out in an electrolyzer and a fuel cell for a full evening. So, that’s a first step of the modification of the use of the power, and there are tons of opportunities. I guess this market is definitely new than what we knew from oil and gas, from nuclear and so on, and I have the feeling of many stakeholders as the end user, the supplier, the OEMs, and even the politics are running in the same direction, so I am myself very excited to work in this segment. And yeah, I was happy to discuss with you.

Jim: Well, that’s a very cool story, that the Eiffel Tower powered by hydrogen for a time there. That’s great, I’m glad you shared that with us. And I guess my final question is how can our listeners contact you if they have questions, or where can they go on our website for additional information?

Nicolas: So we have a lot of websites, and also that’s implemented. You can go on Emerson.com, there is a sustainability page. But wherever you are located on the globe, we have some organization in your country, who speaks your language, and they are very up to speed with expertise on hydrogen. So whenever you reach out, I can help, although my colleagues will be very happy to help on the hydrogen.

Jim: Well, that’s great. Yeah, there’s a bunch of things in the sustainability area of the site, and including quite a bit on hydrogen. Well, Nicolas, I want to thank you so much for joining us today, and sharing some of your thoughts about it. So, thank you very much.

Nicolas: Thank you, Jim.

– End of transcript –   

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