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Multiphase Transport in Polymer Electrolyte Membrane Fuel Cells

Speaker: Eric D. Gauthier
Series: Final Public Oral Examinations
Location: Eisenhart Room (E-Quad G201)
Date/Time: Tuesday, June 18, 2013, 10:00 a.m. - 11:30 a.m.

Polymer electrolyte membrane fuel cells (PEMFCs) enable efficient conversion of fuels to electricity. They have enormous potential due to the high energy density of the fuels they utilize (hydrogen or alcohols). Power density is a major limitation to wide-scale introduction of PEMFCs. Power density in hydrogen fuel cells is limited by accumulation of water in what is termed fuel cell ‘flooding.’ Flooding may occur in either the gas diffusion layer (GDL) or within the flow channels of the bipolar plate. These components comprise the electrodes of the fuel cell and balance transport of reactants/products with electrical conductivity. This thesis explores the role of electrode materials in the fuel cell and examines the fundamental connection between material properties and multiphase transport processes.

Water is generated at the cathode catalyst layer. As liquid water accumulates it will utilize the largest pores in the GDL to go from the catalyst layer to the flow channels. Water collects to large pores via lateral transport at the interface between the GDL and catalyst layer. We have shown that water may be collected in these large pores from several centimeters away, suggesting that we could engineer the GDL to control flooding with careful placement and distribution of large flow-directing pores.
Once liquid water is in the flow channels it forms slugs that block gas flow. The slugs are pushed along the channel by a pressure gradient that is dependent on the material wettability. The permeable nature of the GDL also plays a major role in slug growth and allowing bypass of gas between adjacent channels.

Direct methanol fuel cells (DMFCs) have analogous multiphase flow where carbon dioxide bubbles accumulate, ‘blinding’ regions of the fuel cell. This problem is fundamentally similar to water management in hydrogen fuel cells but with a gas/liquid phase inversion. Gas bubbles move laterally through the porous GDL and emerge to form large bubbles within the flow channel. We have compared the role of GDL materials in liquid drop and gas bubble formation and movement within fuel cells.