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Energy Department Awards NREL Engineers for Exceptional Achievement

June 1, 2012

Each year, principal investigators funded by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) showcase their hydrogen, fuel cell, and advanced vehicle technology projects at the Annual Merit Review and Peer Evaluation Meeting. The recent meeting, held May 14 - 18, brought together more than 1,800 of the nation’s top scientists, engineers, and researchers representing government, national laboratories, academia, and industry. Two NREL engineers received awards, along with 14 other meeting participants from across the country, in honor of their outstanding contributions and exceptional achievements.

Hydrogen Storage
NREL’s Matthew Thornton received a team award in conjunction with representatives of Ford Motor Company and the United Technologies Research Center thanks to their contributions to the development of an integrated modeling framework for the Hydrogen Storage Engineering Center of Excellence (HSECoE). The HSECoE is charged with developing engineered, materials-based, hydrogen storage systems and advancing their performance to meet or exceed DOE technical targets.

The team helped overcome one of the HSECoE’s most significant challenges—accurately projecting system-level performance from experimental material properties for evaluation against DOE's onboard vehicle hydrogen storage targets. To consistently evaluate various design concepts and engineering improvements, the team helped develop an integrated modeling framework consisting of a vehicle-level model, coupled to a fuel cell power plant model, coupled to various hydrogen storage system modules. Storage system performance can be determined by running the integrated models through a set of vehicle drive cycles. This development contributes to the HSECoE's ability to effectively evaluate state-of-the-art technology and to identify technology gaps and necessary engineering improvements.

Fuel Cell Manufacturing
NREL’s Michael Ulsh received an award for his efforts to reduce the cost of manufacturing polymer electrolyte membrane (PEM) fuel cells. His team developed new techniques for identifying manufacturing defects in membrane electrode assemblies (MEAs) and MEA components and for defining sensitivity requirements for the diagnostics, which will lead to improved production tolerances and lower cost PEM MEAs.

Ulsh’s approach involves working with industry partners to determine quality control requirements, using modeling to guide the development of diagnostics in the laboratory, validating the diagnostics in-line, using in situ testing to understand the effects of defects on fuel cell performance, and finally transferring the technology to industry. In addition to demonstrating the use of the optical reflectometry technique developed by the National Center for Photovoltaics to determine thickness variations and bubbles in membrane material, he has used direct current excitation with infrared detection to identify scratches in gas diffusion layers and catalyst defects in catalyst-coated membranes. These techniques were demonstrated on NREL’s Research Web-line using sheets and roll goods manufactured by industry partners at line speeds of 30 feet per minute, which is comparable to the production rates of commercial developers.

—Julia Thomas