Renewable energy has been on the rise in the EU in the last few years. Producing only electricity, water and heat as a by-product, fuel cells are the key to a sustainable energy future. However, cost and infrastructure as well as lack of recycling strategies for both materials and fuel cell components are a major obstacle to wider deployment of the technology. Embracing the circular economy for fuel cells In 2015, the EC adopted an action plan to reduce industry reliance on critical raw materials. Their scarce concentration is in many cases compounded by low recycling rates. Moving away from the ‘take, make and dispose’ way of production and consumption to a ‘circular economy’ where resources are treated as precious will help boost Europe’s competitiveness, promote sustainable economic growth, and generate new jobs. The EU-funded HYTECHCYCLING project has been established to reduce critical raw material use in hydrogen production and fuel cell technologies and promote recycling strategies. “Fuel cell devices contain significant amounts of critical, expensive and scarce materials just like platinum for their operation. Investigating platinum replacements or proper treatments for re-using the material rather than discharging it as waste will help manufacturers develop more eco-friendly fuel cell technologies,” notes project coordinator Alfonso Bernad. The project consortium comprises a group of experts in fuel cell and recycling technologies from the Foundation for the Development of New Hydrogen Technologies in Aragon, the IMDEA Energy Institute, the Environment Park in Turin, the https://www.uni-lj.si/eng/ (University of Ljubljana and the Industrias López Soriano S.A.. The team investigated existing and new recycling and dismantling technologies. Fuel cell catalysts free of critical raw materials Project partners examined the materials used in four different hydrogen production and fuel cell technologies. These included alkaline water electrolysis, proton exchange membrane (PEM) electrolysis, solid oxide fuel cells (SOFC) and PEM fuel cells. The materials were evaluated in terms of cost, EC criticality methodology and their impact on human health. Study findings encouraged the use of catalysts free of critical raw materials. “Fuel cells based entirely on ceramic materials rather than those who conventionally use nickel in the anode are a possible better alternative in SOFC stacks. Furthermore, catalysts with unique core-shell structures may reduce the overall amount of platinum in PEM stacks,” explains Bernad. Additionally, project partners have explored proper recycling technologies to recover more than one material at once. Take for instance, selective electrochemical dissolution, a technique that allowed the recovery of platinum and its carbon support. Reference documentation for recycling and dismantling technologies Through a systematic literature review, project partners analysed current limitations, barriers and challenges that fuel cell technologies may face throughout their lifetime. They also mapped cutting-edge recycling technologies used for treating end-of-life fuel cells. What’s more, they conducted a life-cycle assessment to determine the environmental impact of the four hydrogen and fuel cell technologies, starting with raw material processing and ending with their dismantling and recycling. All this information was collected in comprehensive reference documents. “Our reference documentation paves the way for future technology demonstration activities in the field, while it may also shape future regulation, codes and standards,” says Bernad. “There is still a long path towards achieving a circular economy model in hydrogen production and fuel cell technologies. Starting with identifying important issues such as replacement of critical raw materials and certain recycling and dismantling technologies, HYTECHCYCLING has set the stage for further research,” concludes Bernad.
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