The Magic of MEAs

February 23, 2021

In the last several weeks, there have been a number of major business announcements by Plug Power and our partners. The hard work we and the industry have done over the last 20+ years is becoming very real. And at the center of all of this possibility, potential and performance is a very small component used in both the fuel cells and electrolyzers called an MEA. Today, we’re going to dive into what that magic little MEA is and its role in the whole fuel cell and hydrogen economy.

What is an MEA?

As you already know, a fuel cell is an electrochemical power generator. First, let’s briefly discuss that word electro-chemical. It means that fuel cells don’t burn anything to get the electricity. Instead, we use the special properties of a chemical process to get the electricity. Inside the fuel cell is a special component that looks a lot like a couple pieces of construction paper on a piece of cling-wrap – that’s the MEA. The acronym, MEA, stands for Membrane Electrode Assembly – and it’s essentially a multi-layer piece of fabric. 

MEA - membrane electrode assembly

We’ve painted that membrane with a coating called a catalyst. The two sides of the membrane (anode and cathode) are different. On one side, we send hydrogen; on the other side, we send oxygen, using the air around us. The catalyst lets us borrow part of the hydrogen called the electron, sending it through a circuit to make electricity. The rest of the hydrogen (hydrogen ions at that point) is allowed through the membrane. And once we’re done borrowing the electron, it combines with the hydrogen ions and oxygen to form water.

This video animation shows the process.

And, if you want to completely geek out on MEAs, the Department of Energy has put together a primer on each layer of the MEA.

Our electrolyzer products also use MEAs, manufactured somewhat differently, and the process is essentially the reverse of a fuel cell, starting with water molecules and using energy (from solar, hydro-electric, wind, or utility company power) to split the hydrogen from the water molecule and then capture it for immediate or later use. That hydrogen can be used in anything that needs hydrogen: industrial processes like steel manufacturing and food production, fuel cell vehicles like delivery vans, UAVs and forklifts, or stationary fuel cells that provide backup power to data centers and cell towers, to name just a few.

MEA formulations and production processes are highly-prized company secrets, for Plug Power and other companies who manufacture MEAs.

How do MEAs figure into Plug Power’s business plans?

Plug Power not only uses MEAs in our fuel cell and electrolyzer products, we also make them. In fact, our facility in Rochester, NY is now the largest manufacturer of MEAs in the U.S. and fourth largest in the world! And in the Innovation Center we’re moving into this year, we’ll be further expanding our production capabilities as well as our research and development science in this area. Our gigafactory will be capable of making more than 7 million MEAs per year – an important component to our quickly-expanding global business opportunities.

It’s a bit heady to think about, but the little MEA is the basis for Plug Power’s success as we continue to build the hydrogen economy.