Ulf Groos: “Research at the heart of the fuel cell”

Ulf Groos from Fraunhofer ISE on the role of applied research in bringing fuel cells to industrial scale.

Ulf Groos is head of the Fuel Cells Department in the Hydrogen Technologies Business Unit at the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems ISE in Freiburg, Germany. The institute conducts applied research and thus supports industry in its market ramp-up through research services. Groos’ department works closely with companies in the fuel cell sector, especially on the membrane electron assembly (MEA), the electrochemical heart of a mobile fuel cell.


Mr Groos, how far has the industrialisation of the hydrogen economy and fuel cells progressed?

The industrialisation of the fuel cell has only just begun, and we have noticed for three to four years that the order situation is improving and developing very dynamically. Customers from the German automotive industry and its suppliers are practically beating down our doors for research services. And we notice that the industry is investing heavily in new production facilities, among other things to prepare for the market entry of fuel cell-powered trucks.

How is Fraunhofer ISE supporting this ramp-up?

Our core competence here in Freiburg is the membrane electron assembly. I always like to say that this is the electrochemical heart of a fuel cell, i.e. the component in which the reaction that converts hydrogen with oxygen into electricity takes place. We examine this component for its performance and ageing properties under certain operating conditions. We also study its microstructure. In this way, we support our customers when they enter the production of the components and electrodes, telling them how to make inks, how to realize the coating, how to dry the wet layers, and so on. We got into modelling, describing the physics of the MEA, many years ago, so we have a very good understanding of what effects, what phenomena are observed in the operation of the membrane electrode unit. These are very detailed electrochemical methods that we offer here. This range of services is relevant for industry when you think about the planned scaling up to large quantities. You need a very good understanding of the components you want to use and also want to last over the entire lifetime. 

What is the demand for this very application-oriented research?

In fact, the demand is so great that we have been able to triple our staff and research capacity in the last five years. And yet we cannot keep up with the demand. 

What is the function of the public sector with its research contracts?

These programmes and public funds help us to conduct preliminary research, for example to investigate new materials that are not yet ready for the market, or to develop new electrochemical test methods that cannot yet be used by our customers. Last year, we received a funding decision for the Fraunhofer H2GO action plan. H2GO bundles the activities of 19 Fraunhofer institutes with the aim of significantly reducing CO2 emissions from freight mobility. It is funded by the Federal Ministry of Transport, Digital Affairs and Transport. In addition to the federal government, the state of Baden-Württemberg also provides strong support for our research projects. We are very grateful for this support.

What role can traditional medium-sized production technology companies play in these new value chains?

Our main customers are the large OEMs, the global corporations in the automotive or mobile world, but also the very large suppliers in this sector. Nevertheless, small and medium-sized enterprises are also enormously important for us as well. The mechanical and plant engineering sector in Baden-Württemberg, which is strongly characterized by small and medium-sized enterprises, is very innovative. Basically, many components of a fuel cell are manufactured and developed by the so-called hidden champions in the SME sector. 

Will the Fraunhofer institutes at hy-fcell give impulses in this direction?

For two decades, hy-fcell has been one of the most important conferences and accompanying trade fairs in Germany for the hydrogen/fuel cell scene. Not only do German companies come together there, but the exhibition and conference also have a certain international appeal, making it an ideal platform for exchange. And I am grateful that Fraunhofer was able to organize a large session over two days to exchange ideas with the professional audience and to give impetus to production research for fuel cells: From the catalyst to the complete fuel cell stack, we are looking at the possibilities of series production along the entire value chain. Five Fraunhofer institutes will present their findings and innovations in the field of fuel cell production. This is a great opportunity to bring our results to the market!

Do your topics also help to inspire young people for these future-oriented technologies?

The topic of zero-emission mobility is highly attractive and an interesting field of work in an automotive state like Baden-Württemberg. So far, we have been able to fill our positions with creative, ambitious and excellent researchers. But it is quite clear that Germany needs to invest a lot in education in view of the huge transformation that lies ahead of us. I believe it is also important for industry to attract the best minds from all over the world to us.

© Fraunhofer ISE
Test laboratory for in-situ characterization of membrane electrode units for the PEM fuel cell at Fraunhofer ISE.