Recycling fuel cell components

Paul Boughton

A pioneering recycling process to recover high-value materials from waste fuel cells has been developed in a collaborative project between resource recovery specialist Axion Consulting, Johnson Matthey Fuel Cells Limited and Technical Fibre Products (TFP).

Funded by the UK’s innovation agency, Innovate UK, the objective of the Recover project is to establish the technical and economic feasibility of recovery and re-use of high value materials from fuel cell membrane electrode assemblies and ultimately to establish the potential for a new UK-based global recycling business.

Having proven the initial process steps, further research is underway on evaluating the viability for commercial operation and developing a take-back system for end-of-life fuel cells - such as those from forklift trucks, mobile phone masts, electric vehicles and in small portable power packs for laptops and other products.

The project involves Axion leading on the development of the primary recycling routes; TFP leading on the recovery and re-use of the carbon fibres and Johnson Matthey Fuel Cells leading on the re-use of materials in fuel cells and the final recovery and recycling of the precious metals.

“It offers exciting potential using really elegant chemistry,” commented Roger Morton, Axion Consulting Director. “The ability to recycle fuel cells is important as they will be powering the vehicles and technology of the future, which needs to be cost-effective if they are to be acceptable to both consumers and manufacturers.

“To make fuel cells more cost-effective, we need to reduce their whole-life cost and maximise the value of the resources they contain, such as platinum, high-value polymers and carbon fibre. Recycling them would also improve resource-efficiency and security of supply for these expensive and critical materials.”

An innovative feature of the project involves design for recycling so the products are easier to recycle in the first place. Key challenges involve the collection of widely-distributed fuel cells and the technical hurdles presented in material recovery. For example, a high yield is essential for platinum while carbon fibres need to be separated from other components.

Meanwhile, experimental trials are continuing at Axion’s laboratories in its Salford recycling facility alongside on-going market investigation. Roger added: “The hydrogen economy will continue to develop and grow; it is the future. In 10 to 15 years’ time, significant quantities of fuel cells will reach the end of their lives and having the technological capability to recover their valuable resources will be crucial.”