Design of a gas diffusion layer for a polymer electrolyte membrane fuel cell with a graduated resistance to flow
Caston, Terry Brett
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Due to escalating energy costs and limited fossil fuel resources, much attention has been given to polymer electrolyte membrane (PEM) fuel cells. Gas diffusion layers (GDLs) play a vital role in a fuel cell such as (1) water removal, (2) cooling, (3) structural backing, (4) electrical conduction and (5) transporting gases towards the active catalyst sites where the reactions take place. The power density of a PEM fuel cell in part is dependent upon how uniform the gases are distributed to the active sites. To this end, research is being conducted to understand the mechanisms that influence gas distribution across the fuel cell. Emerging PEM fuel cell designs have shown that higher power density can be achieved; however this requires significant changes to existing components, particularly the GDL. For instance, some emerging concepts require higher through-plane gas permeability than in-plane gas permeability (i.e., anisotropic resistance) which is contrary to conventional GDLs (e.g., carbon paper and carbon cloth), to obtain a uniform gas distribution across the active sites. This is the foundation on which this thesis is centered. A numerical study is conducted in order to investigate the effect of the gas permeability profile on the expected current density in the catalyst layer. An experimental study is done to characterize the effects of the weave structure on gas permeability in woven GDLs. Numerical simulations are developed using Fluent version 6.3.26 and COMSOL Multiphysics version 3.5 to create an anisotropic resistance profile in the unconventional GDL, while maintaining similar performance to conventional GDL designs. The effects of (1) changing the permeability profile in the in-plane and through-plane direction, (2) changing the thickness of the unconventional GDL and (3) changing the gas stoichiometry on the current density and pressure drop through the unconventional GDL are investigated. It is found that the permeability profile and thickness of the unconventional GDL have a minimal effect on the average current density and current density distribution. As a tradeoff, an unconventional GDL with a lower permeability will exhibit a higher pressure drop. Once the fuel cell has a sufficient amount of oxygen to sustain reactions, the gas stoichiometry has a minimal effect on increases in performance. Woven GDL samples with varying tightness and weave patterns are made on a hand loom, and their in-plane and through-plane permeability are measured using in-house test equipment. The porosity of the samples is measured using mercury intrusion porosimetry. It is found that the in-plane permeability is higher than the through-plane permeability for all weave patterns tested, except for the twill weave with 8 tows/cm in the warp direction and 4 tows/cm in the weft direction, which exhibited a through-plane permeability which was 20% higher than the in-plane permeability. It is also concluded that the permeability of twill woven fabrics is higher than the permeability of plain woven fabrics, and that the percentage of macropores, ranging in size from 50-400 µm, is a driving force in determining the through-plane permeability of a woven GDL. From these studies, it was found that the graduated permeability profile in the unconventional GDL had a minimal effect on gas flow. However, a graduated permeability may have an impact on liquid water transport. In addition, it was found that graduating the catalyst loading, thereby employing a non-uniform catalyst loading has a greater effect on creating a uniform current density than graduating the permeability profile.