‘We’re now building a big new fuel cell inspection machine’

Rocket’s SuperSurf consortium combines strengths in upcoming market

Jürgen Valentin, Head of Innovation at Oberhausen based NanoFocus, developed a special affection for the Rocket Supersurf program. ‘When we started three years ago, I knew about fuel cell technologies only by theory,’ he says. ‘Now this new field is very much alive to me. I’ve learnt extensively from the expertise fields of our collaborative partners.’

Above that, Valentin is very much impressed by their creativity, unconventional daily practice and flexibility in innovation projects. ‘Especially the unbelievingly rapid up-scaling capabilities, even when truly innovative ideas are involved, I find impressive,’ he says. ‘In collaboration we fully reached our common goals.’

Speaking for NanoFocus GmbH, Valentin expects the first inspection machine for bi-polar fuel cell plates to be ordered this coming year. For the “Control trade fair”, May 2019 in Stuttgart, NanoFocus plans to demonstrate their skills, by presenting a new inspection machine.

As a former working student at Philips in Eindhoven, Jürgen Valentin has a long tradition of  good experience collaborating with Dutch people. As does the company. The original founder team of NanoFocus GmbH, in 1994, consisted of German and Dutch researchers, one of them working at Philips as well. ‘At that time I was the first employee,’ Valentin tells.

He is certain mentality and expectation perspectives between German and Dutch partners, match much better nowadays than they did some ten years ago. ‘Lots of traditional and long lasting relationships matured ever since,’ he says. ‘We know each other’s strengths. For example, in the Netherlands, specialized manufacturing companies are excellent and always open to innovation. We are happy to collaborate with many of them. We, in Germany, I guess, have more open access to market opportunities on an international level.’

Unconventional and bold

Within the Rocket SuperSurf program, Valentin values the input of Demcon, a high-end technology supplier of products and systems, based in Enschede, as exemplary. ‘Their approach in innovative projects is really unconventional and bold,’ he says. ‘I love the creativity and rapid up-scaling capabilities they show time and time again. It is great, within the SuperSurf project, to see how quickly we were able to meet our commonly shared tasks.’

At the core of fuel cell technology, especially when proton exchange membranes (PEM) are involved, high precision components, such as bi-polar plates, gas distribution layers and (supportive) catalytic membranes, are interlinked minutely, in order to maximize electronic conductivity and catalytic activity in an unsteady corrosive reaction environment.

Detail and length

‘We mainly focused on the quality parameters of the multichannel bi-polar plates,’ Valentin says. ‘This is relevant now and will be even more so in next generation fuel cells. The bi-polar plates are among the most complex components within fuel cell stacks.’

In detecting surface roughness, fabrication material peaks and possible defects, the crux is to inspect into nanometer detail and, within the same go, to scan these over considerable length-scales, up to 0,5 meter.

‘Only then the quality of the flow-field within the fuel cell, and the safeguard of the electronic properties, can be guaranteed,’ Valentin says. ‘For one of our fuel cell production partners we now scan their produced bi-polar plates once or twice every month, to see if the production parameters still meet quality requirements. As mass production of fuel cells will reach new levels, I expect near in-line measuring machines will gain added-value. Then, performing quality checks several times a day, lasting about 0.5 – 1 hour per run, will be within reach.’

Stack quality control

As not all components can be tested individually during production, in the end the overall quality procedures of whole stacks are decisive. Here, all relevant performance requirements and standards of multi-component stacks are validated. A fuel cell may consist of up to 500 bi-polar plates, anodes, cathodes and catalytic membranes.

This is where the expertise of Demcon comes in. Valentin: ‘The quality strategies of NanoFocus and Demcon – designing the complete quality procedures – have to complement one another. We learned that software analytical skills are decisive once more again, and Demcon has great expertise in this. In our own measuring machines, we feel these software innovations develop rapidly and are decisive for our future machines and services. We learned a great deal in collaborating with Demcon on this, especially on these novel data analyses techniques. We would like to collaborate further with the Demcon experts for our own equipment: in automotive, semi-conductor and medical industry.’

Critical details

Within SuperSurf the expertise of Arnheim based companies NedStack, manufacturer of PEM fuel cell stacks, for transport and power plants, and HyMove, integrator of systems, was indispensable. ‘We now know about the practical details and critical parts of contemporary and future fuel cells, aiming our quality measurement strategies at those,’ Valentin says.

Many innovative developments take place worldwide, but on the production side of fuel cells, progress is hesitant still. Valentin: ‘By collaborating with NedStack and HyMove, we are sure to meet the standards as innovation proceeds. And we are patient. While trusting in market breakthrough applications one day, we are always ready to join in. Our collaboration with Adrem Consulting is helpful here as well. They helped us finding companies in the fuel cell trade that would otherwise never have been revealed to us. Organising and actively searching for events to attend, and experts to consult, they helped us to keep track in the multiple developments of the fuel cell market.’

Academic research

To incorporate new (software) analytic techniques and novel test methods, the partnership with Fuel Cell Research Zentrum für Brennstoffzellen Technik (ZBT) in Duisburg, was crucial.

‘We are common to work on fundamental R&D projects,’ Valentin explains. ‘We are used to challenge nano-scale resolution product requirements, designing new measurement strategies thereby combining (confocal) optical and analytical techniques and strategies. We do so by cooperating in scientific research, but also we provide up-to-date apparatus for scientific researchers as well.’

Stuttgart trade fair

Valentin is optimistic as to the near future roll-out of fuel cell production measuring equipment. ‘At this very moment, we are busy building a new and even bigger inspection machine, to be shown at the “Control trade fair” in Stuttgart,’  he says.  

‘Here we can demonstrate our high precision scanning skills. I am sure we can convince fuel cell partners in industry. Of course, building such a machine is pricy. We took advantage of our activities in various fields, using spare key components from our semi-conductor equipment for this special apparatus. Intuition tells me that when different disciplines meet, we are most certainly on the right track. The SuperSurf Rocket program allowed us to do so. We are grateful to our collaborative partners and also to Oost NL, guiding us through the bureaucracy of the subsidiary program. We were always welcome to ask them for help, and solve the problems and barriers we encountered.’