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Project Grant


Grant Description
Modification of Nafion® thermoplastic precursor to enable reprocessing of fuel cell manufacturing scraps.
Place of Performance
Boulder, Colorado 80305-6433 United States
Geographic Scope
Single Zip Code
Rockytech was awarded Project Grant DESC0023982 worth $206,490 from the Office of Science in July 2023 with work to be completed primarily in Boulder Colorado United States. The grant has a duration of 1 year and was awarded through assistance program 81.049 Office of Science Financial Assistance Program. The Project Grant was awarded through grant opportunity FY 2023 Phase I Release 2.

SBIR Details

Research Type
SBIR Phase I
Modification of Nafion® Thermoplastic Precursor to Enable Reprocessing of Fuel Cell Manufacturing Scraps
To reach national clean hydrogen goals by 2050, hydrogen energy technologies must be massively scaled while costs are reduced. Both fuel cells and electrolyzers rely on proton exchange membranes (PEMs), which are based on polyfluorinated sulfonic acid (PFSA) ionomers. PFSA-PEMs, like Nafion® (Chemours) and Aquivion® (Solvay), are expensive and hazardous to produce, and they are also not recyclable owing to their non-processable nature. In fact, the materials are manufactured via a thermally processable precursor that is irreversibly converted to the PFSA-PEM. Unused manufacturing scraps and end-of-life (EOL) membranes therefore contribute to a significant amount of hazardous fluorinated waste. Developing novel methods to reuse PFSA-PEM manufacturing scraps would reduce emissions and hazards associated with conventional EOL methods, while enabling reuse in new electrolyzers/fuel cells would reduce emissions and hazards associated with their manufacturing. Recycling PFSA-PEMs has been found to significantly reduce the cost of hydrogen energy. We will explore two approaches toward circular PFSA-PEMs. Both approaches focus on modifying the material at the precursor stage using modern click chemistry. The first approach is to create a covalent adaptable network (CAN) by introducing dynamic crosslinks that exchange during heating. CAN materials, the core technology of RockyTech, Ltd., are well-known for endowing thermal processability to conventionally non-processable materials. After conversion of the precursor, the CAN structure will allow thermal reprocessability (self-healing) to the PFSA-PEM for further lifecycles. Our second approach is to increase solvent reprocessability by making hydrophilic modifications to the precursor. These modifications will increase the PFSA-PEM’s dispersability in wateralcohol mixtures under mild conditions, in contrast to the current harsh temperature and pressure requirements, which have not been accepted by industry as a feasible recycling method. In Phase I, we will modify PFSA-PEM precursors with the (1) CAN approach and (2) hydrophilic modification approach, for thermal and solvent-based reprocessing, respectively. The modified precursors will be converted to the PFSA-PEM ionomers and subsequently evaluated for recyclability and performance in electrochemical test cells. Effects of the modifications on polymer physical properties will be closely analyzed after each unit operation. In Phase II, we will look past manufacturing scrap recycling toward EOL membrane recycling. Realizing circular PFSA-PEMs will not only reduce hazardous fluorinated waste issues, but also reduce the costs, hazards, and emissions of new manufacturing. Our chemical modification approaches are simple and will not impair membrane performance. Thus, our technology can be feasibly integrated into current PFSA-PEM manufacturing processes, promoting commercial adoption by producers such as Chemours and Solvay. We will establish relationships with these companies during Phase I and II research.
Topic Code
Solicitation Number


Last Modified 8/28/23

Period of Performance
Start Date
End Date
62.0% Complete

Funding Split
Federal Obligation
Non-Federal Obligation
Total Obligated
100.0% Federal Funding
0.0% Non-Federal Funding

Activity Timeline

Interactive chart of timeline of amendments to DESC0023982

Additional Detail

SAI Number
Award ID URI
Awardee Classifications
Small Business
Awarding Office
Funding Office
892401 SCIENCE
Awardee UEI
Awardee CAGE
Performance District
Michael Bennet
John Hickenlooper

Budget Funding

Federal Account Budget Subfunction Object Class Total Percentage
Science, Energy Programs, Energy (089-0222) General science and basic research Grants, subsidies, and contributions (41.0) $206,490 100%
Modified: 8/28/23