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Understanding the Transport Processes in Polymer Electrolyte Membrane Fuel Cells

Speaker: May Jean Cheah
Series: Final Public Oral Examinations
Location: Bowen Hall 319
Date/Time: Friday, May 10, 2013, 3:30 p.m. - 5:00 p.m.

Polymer electrolyte membrane (PEM) fuel cells are energy conversion devices suitable for automotive, stationary and portable applications. An engineering challenge that is hindering the widespread use of PEM fuel cells is the water management issue, where either a lack of water (resulting in membrane dehydration) or an excess accumulation of liquid water (resulting in fuel cell flooding) critically reduces the PEM fuel cell performance. The water management issue is addressed by this dissertation through the study of three transport processes occurring in PEM fuel cells.

Water transport within the membrane is a combination of water diffusion down the water activity gradient and the dragging of water molecules by protons when there is a proton current, in a phenomenon termed electro?osmotic drag, EOD. Both water diffusion and EOD in the membrane are reduced due to water transport resistance at the vapor/membrane interface.  The redistribution of water inside the membrane by EOD causes an overall increase in the membrane resistance that regulates the current and thus EOD, thereby preventing membrane dehydration.

Liquid water transport in the PEM fuel cell flow channel was examined at different gas flow regimes. At low gas Reynolds numbers, drops transitioned into slugs that are subsequently pushed out of the flow channel by the gas flow. The slug volume is dependent on the geometric shape, the surface wettability and the orientation (with respect to gravity) of the flow channel. The differential pressure required for slug motion primarily depends on the interfacial forces to move the contact lines at the front and the back of the slug. At high gas Reynolds number, water is removed as a film or as drops depending on the flow channel surface wettability. The shape of growing drops at low and high Reynolds number can be described by a simple interfacial energy minimization model.

Under flooding conditions, the fuel cell local current can be significantly reduced due to diffusional limitation of the transport of gaseous reactants through inerts such as water vapor and nitrogen gas. A non?uniform current distribution across the membrane electrode assembly can cause pinhole formation and ultimately, fuel cell failure.