Proton Exchange Membrane Fuel Cell

Research Mentor: Dr. Kannan
MSTF members: Jannette Nuestro, Maria Ethier

Fuel cell basics

Fuel Cells are conversion devices; they change chemical energy into electrical energy. Fuel cells are more efficient than gasoline combustion engines, and as the only emissions of hydrogen fueled cells is water; they are much better for the environment. While fuels cells are more efficient and less polluting than the combustion engine, there are significant hurdles to large-scale development of fuel cell technology for transportation, specifically the cost of the membrane catalyst.

While there are many types of fuel cells, the Proton Exchange Membrane Fuel Cell (PEMFC) is the best suited for transportation. A PEMFC optimum temperate is 80° C, meaning it can run efficiently at low temperature, unlike other types of fuel cells, which run at very high temperatures. It would not be very easy to heat your car to 1000° C to run to the store!

PEMFCs work by passing a fuel, in the case of our research group hydrogen, through a membrane. The membrane only allows protons to pass, and electrons are trapped on one side of the membrane, as the electrons travel to the other side of the membrane an electrical current is created. The proton and electron bind with oxygen on the cathode side of the membrane to form water molecules as the only emissions. The catalyst required for this reaction is platinum. Unfortunately platinum is very expensive. This expense limits the usefulness of fuel cells as an alternative way to provide energy for transportation.

Introduction to Dr. Kannan's Research Project

The goal of Dr. Kannan's research is to improve the power density of Proton Exchange Membrane Fuel Cells (PEMFC). Improvement in the power density will allow for smaller fuel cells, using less materials, and therefore decreasing the cost of the fuel cell. The subject of Dr. Kannan and his research assistant Jay's research is changing the membrane features by treating the carbon nanotubes with citric acid which allows for an equal distribution of the Pt catalyst across the membrane. In addition to improving the distribution of the catalyst the treatment also allow smaller Pt particles to adhere to the Carbon nanotube, increasing the surface area available for reaction. This process has increased the performance of the fuel cell by as much as 20%.

Our Lab
Fellowship Experience
The research experience centered on fabrication and evaluation of three fuel cell samples. The steps are:
Gas Diffusion Layer (GDL) Fabrication
GDL 1 - 0.21 mm Carbon Paper
GDL 2 - 0.13 mm Carbon Paper
Prepare Carbon slurry, use the coating tool to spread the Carbon slurry on the carbon paper
Catalyst Coated Membrane (CCM):
Use Micro spraying technique to evenly distribute Pt catalyst on the surface of the Nafion membrane and cure in furnace for 10 to 15 min.
Fuel Cell Assembly
Cut GDL to fit sample size. Arrange GDL, PEM, and Silicone coated fabric gasket in the fuel cell test cell.
Fuel Cell Evaluation
Attach fuel cell to Hydrogenics test system to collect fuel cell performance data at various operating conditions