Roll-to-Roll Manufacturing Multilab Collaboration

In a multilab collaborative effort, NREL researchers are accelerating roll-to-roll materials manufacturing for a broad range of energy-, water-, and industry-related technologies to lower costs and improve efficiency.

Roll-to-roll materials manufacturing involves continuous processing of a flexible substrate as it is conveyed along a roller-based processing line. The output results in rolls of finished material produced in a cost-effective and efficient manner.

Two scientists stand with roll-to-roll equipment in lab.
Rolling it out: Scientists Michael Ulsh and Peter Rupnowski work on quality control measures for roll-to-roll materials manufacturing at NREL. Photo by Dennis Schroeder, NREL

There are numerous applications for roll-to-roll processing. For instance, the manufacturing method can be used to make:

  • Flexible electronic devices
  • Flexible photovoltaics
  • Fuel cell and electrolysis components
  • Thin-film batteries
  • Membranes
  • Fibers and textiles
  • Metal foil and sheet manufacturing
  • Industrial coatings
  • Products for the medical, buildings, and paper industry.

Impact

Compared to conventional methods, roll-to-roll improves life cycle costs and increases the scale of operation, making it a viable, cost-effective approach to materials manufacturing. Benefits of roll-to-roll manufacturing include:

  • Increased efficiency
  • Multiple sequential processing steps
  • High production rates and yields
  • Reduced manufacturing costs
  • Applications for numerous industries.

NREL's efforts support the next generation of scientists and engineers by giving student interns and post-doctoral researchers access to state-of-the-art research facilities to pursue research on roll-to-roll manufacturing and disseminating information to industry via publications, presentations, and technology transfers.

Capabilities

NREL offers a variety of capabilities for roll-to-roll technologies, including:

  • Ink development
  • Solution processing
  • Roll-to-roll equipment
  • Metrology and in-line nondestructive evaluation
  • Device fabrication and testing for a breadth of technology areas such as fuel cells, electrolysis, batteries, photovoltaics, and membranes for water and buildings.

Completed Roll-to-Roll Projects

NREL partnered with Navitas Systems to explore roll-to-roll processing for various materials and coatings for the lithium-ion battery separator for improved functionality. Specifically, using automated ultrasonic spraying, NREL studied patterned, interdigitated coatings of two materials on the separator to replace conventional manufacturing materials. Studies of roll-to-roll patterning followed using a forward-gravure printing process.

The collaborative efforts of NREL, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and Navitas Systems demonstrated the ability to use roll-to-roll printing and a patterned gravure roller for the ink used on battery separators.

This work was made possible through a cooperative research and development agreement.

NREL assisted Peroxygen Systems Inc. with efforts to understand the transition from lab-scale to scalable fabrication of electrodes. NREL used slot die and gravure coating to study and validate high-volume-relevant methods for electrode production, with a strong emphasis on development of inks that are suited to a production environment. Further ink development was explored to achieve the desired rheology and mixing properties for pilot-scale coating.

An additional aspect of the effort was to identify suitable in-line quality inspection techniques for the coated electrodes. Using NREL's metrology web-line, researchers performed in-line experiments to demonstrate multiple methods to image electrode uniformity in real time.

This partnership was made possible through the U.S. Department of Energy's Small Business Vouchers program, which connects small businesses with national laboratories to meet technical challenges.

Publications

Process Model for Multilayer Slide Coating of Polymer Electrolyte Membrane Fuel Cells, Journal of Coating Technology Research (2021)

Development of High-Performance Roll-to-Roll-Coated Gas-Diffusion-Electrode-Based Fuel Cells, Journal of Power Sources (2021)

Fabrication of High-Performance Gas-Diffusion-Electrode Based Membrane-Electrode Assemblies, Journal of Power Sources (2020)

Impact of Catalyst Ink Dispersing Methodology on Fuel Cell Performance Using in-Situ X-Ray Scattering, ACS Applied Energy Materials (2019)

Impact of Microporous Layer Roughness on Gas-Diffusion-Electrode-Based Polymer Electrolyte Membrane Fuel Cell Performance, ACS Applied Energy Materials (2019)

Partners

An extensive coordination effort involves five national laboratories and multiple U.S. Department of Energy offices, including primary sponsorship from the Advanced Manufacturing Office. NREL collaborates with Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Argonne National Laboratory, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and Sandia National Laboratories to execute this work.

Contact

Michael Ulsh

Group Manager, Process Science and Engineering Group
Roll-to-Roll Collaboration NREL Lab Lead

Michael.Ulsh@nrel.gov
303-275-3842