Modine explores making components for fuel cell vehicles

Modine explores making components for fuel cell vehicles

MilwaukeeModine Manufacturing Company in Racine is providing heat-transfer components for new fuel-cell vehicles developed by Volskwagen Inc., the company said on Wednesday.
The parts are for use in the Touran HyMotion, the automotive company’s new hybrid vehicle. Modine’s mass heat transfer and humidifying components will regulate the vehicle’s fuel cell, which is the car’s main energy source.
The deal is “just a non-exclusive, arm’s length, professional deal”, said Mark Baffa, director of Modine’s fuel-cell products group.
Modine will be tailoring components to do mass heat transfers within the fuel cell systems themselves, and will also be working on components to humidify the system’s reactants – hydrogen and oxygen from the incoming air. The fuel cells combine these two substances to create an electric current, which is used as the vehicle’s power source. The byproduct is not exhaust but water, which Modine’s humidifying component may be able to recycle back into the system.
“These are interesting components; this is something we’ve worked with them on for some time,” Baffa said. “We’re still trying to see how far we can take it. It’s unique and it’s pretty novel, but … the long term prospects of it are unknown.”

Technical challenges

While Professor Sanford A. Klein, professor of the University of Wisconsin-Madison College of Engineering, has doubts about hydrogen-based fuel-cell technology for transportation, he does see the importance of both the mass heat transfer and humidification components that Modine will be providing.
Because fuel cells are not 100 percent efficient, they lose some of the energy that comes out of the fuel reaction. While a portion of this energy is converted into energy to run the vehicle, a large portion is converted into heat – which must be transferred out of the system in order to regulate the temperature of the fuel cell.
What’s even more challenging is that Modine’s humidification component will have to regulate the system very closely in order to make sure that the fuel cell itself is neither too dry nor too wet to function.
“The proton exchange membrane looks like Saran wrap,” Klein said. “It allows protons to transfer through the membrane, but … its transfer rate is very much dependent on the humidity; if the humidity is too low, it doesn’t transfer protons. If it’s too wet, the water droplets form on it and it acts as a resistor to transfer.”
Klein said he doesn’t doubt that Modine will be able to handle the challenges prevented by the fuel cell system, but pointed out that the climate presents a considerable challenge. Not only will differing climates provide different outside humilities to be regulated, but vehicles driven in cold climates will need fuel cells that can resist the possibility of the water freezing.


Neither company has announced any other plans to work together, but, because of Modine’s position in heat transfer technology, it has an opportunity for other collaborations with Volkswagen. Relatively few companies have made strides into fuel cell component production because there is currently no commercial fuel cell industry.
“There’s no exclusivity. We live on the strength of our technology and we serve their needs,” Baffa said. “I think we’re currently the company that they rely on for all that, it doesn’t mean that in their vast supply base they’ll tap someone else to do something, but this is an effort on their part to develop the foundational technology inside Volkswagen.”
According to David Leiker, an analyst with Robert W. Baird & Co., thermal management in fuel cells is one of Modine’s “longer-term technology” focuses. So, while the company continues to concentrate on other technologies, such as exhaust gas recirculation coolers, integrated oil coolers, and fuel coolers, on a short term basis, Modine will continue to develop its heat management systems for fuel cell technology.
Though fuel cell technology is far from having its own commercial industry, both Modine and Volkswagen are working to keep on top of the advances in the field, in hopes that they will be significant players once fuel cells become a viable replacement for fuel combustion engines.
“From a future standpoint, this is extremely important. But, today, it is what it is … you can’t attach a lot of commercial value to this. There is no commercial fuel cell business today,” Baffa said. “Volkswagen, like anyone else in the automotive industry, is trying to make sure that they understand the potential of the technology and can understand it well enough to decide where they’ll be going with it.”

Katy Williams is a Madison-based correspondent for WTN and can be reached at