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Fuel Cell R&D


Microstructural Characterization of Polymer Electrolyte Membrane Fuel Cells

The goal of this effort is to elucidate the structural and compositional mechanisms contributing to degradation and/or failure for the individual components comprising fuel cell membrane electrode assemblies (MEAs) by conducting extensive microstructural characterization using advanced electron microscopy. The material components include the electrocatalysts, carbon supports, membranes, gas diffusion layers (GDLs), and microporous layers (MPLs). The primary research focus will be on the complete characterization of new/novel materials for fuel cells layers and how these materials perform during electochemical aging. The microscopy techniques that are developed as part of this research will be applied to collaborative fuel cell materials degradation studies with industry, academia, and other national laboratories.

Access to microscopy facilities at ORNL is available through the Shared Research Equipment (ShaRE) User Facility.

Contact: Karren More, morekl1@ornl.gov

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Durable Catalysts for Fuel Cell Protection During Transient Conditions (in support of 3M Company)

A collaborative team led by 3M will develop and optimize new catalysts to reduce potentials experienced during transient fuel cell operation (i.e., start-up/shut-down and local fuel starvation at the anode.)  The research effort will focus on developing or modifying the processing of 3M’s nano-structured thin film (NSTF) catalysts having (1) a high oxygen evolution reaction (OER) at the cathode to maintain a low potential, required for the decomposition of water during high-voltage spikes and, (2) anode catalysts having a low oxygen reduction reaction (ORR) activity without losing the capability for the hydrogen oxidation reaction (HOR).  These catalyst modification studies will also involve efforts to reduce total precious group metal (PGM) loadings and structural and compositional characterization.

Contact: David Cullen, cullenda@ornl.gov

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Nanosegregated Cathode Catalysts with Ultra-Low Pt Content (in support of Argonne National Laboratory)

Argonne National Laboratory (ANL) will utilize a materials-by-design approach to address challenges and opportunities for the development of new catalyst materials, which will focus on (1) manipulation of surface electronic and faceting properties, (2) characterization of the sub-Å-scale interface structure (nanoparticle-surface and nanoparticle-support interfaces) using ex-situ and in-situ techniques, (3) develop a fundamental understanding of the principles controlling efficient ORR, and (4) synthesize and optimize active sites at catalyst surfaces.  These fundamental studies will enable the development of high-ORR-activity ternary catalysts and the tuning of the electronic and surface properties to optimize stability.  ORNL will support the development of these novel ternary catalysts with extensive microstructural and compositional characterization using advanced microscopy.

Contact: Karren More, morekl1@ornl.gov

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Extended, Continuous Pt Nanostructures in Thick, Dispersed Electrodes (in support of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory)

A collaborative team led by NREL will develop extended, continuous Pt nanostructured catalysts and incorporate them into high-performance, low-loaded, thick catalyst layers with favorable water management characteristics.  These studies will include several integrated tasks, including novel materials synthesis, extensive characterization, thick-electrode studies, and modeling/simulation.  The collaborative effort will focus on “thrifting” Pt (ultra-low Pt loadings) through the development of dispersed electrodes and nanostructured catalysts, while maintaining performance and durability during fuel cell operation.  This will be achieved through nanoparticle synthesis (nanowires, nanotubes, whiskers, etc.), optimization of continuous Pt coating methodologies, and electrode and membrane electrode assembly studies.

Contact: Kelly Perry, perryka@ornl.gov

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Durability Improvements through Degradation Mechanism Studies (in support of Los Alamos National Laboratory)

This project will ultimately provide fundamental definitions of PEM fuel cell component degradation mechanisms, quantify the influence of operating environment for different fuel cell components, degradation measurements of various component interfaces, and develop component-level degradation models for all relevant components and interfaces.  ORNL’s role in this project will be to verify degradation mechanisms through extensive microstructural characterization of the fuel cell components, which includes the electrode materials, polymer membranes, gas diffusion layers, microporous layers, and metallic bipolar plates.  The characterization results will be essential for development of an integrated cell degradation model and implementation of AST methodologies for fuel cell durability testing.  ORNL will also provide LANL with metallic bipolar plates for the durability studies.

Contact: Karren More, morekl1@ornl.gov

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The Science and Engineering of Durable Ultralow PGM Catalysts (in support on Los Alamos National Laboratory)

A collaborative team led by LANL will provide the fundamental understanding of PGM mass activity, stability, and support interactions to facilitate the development of new catalysts having novel geometries.  The development of new catalyst materials will require an understanding of the roles of “traditional” PGM catalyst shape/morphology, size, catalyst-support interactions, and electrode architecture, which will also provide insight into elucidating the mechanism(s) of electrocatalysis on specific PGM surfaces.  This information will be critical in the design and development of novel, “non-traditional” catalysts (i.e., non-spheroidal, highly defective, novel-geometry, etc.) having higher mass activities.  Significant high resolution microstructural and microcompositional analyses of both traditional and new-geometry PGM-based catalysts will be required, the results of which will provide data for an extensive modeling effort.

Contact: Karren More, morekl1@ornl.gov

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Nitrided Metallic Bipolar Plates

One of the most expensive components of a fuel cell is the bipolar plate, which electrically connects individual fuel cells in a stack to achieve a useful voltage. The use of metallic alloys for these plates would offer several benefits such as low-cost/high-volume manufacturing, high thermal and electrical conductivities, and the ability to be made into thin sheets to achieve high power densities. The inadequate corrosion resistance of most metals, however, has prevented their use. The goal of this effort is to scale-up and demonstrate the viability of thin stamped metallic bipolar plates protected by a thermal (gas) nitridation surface treatment (left).
In this approach, an electrically-conductive and corrosion-resistant Cr-nitride surface layer is formed by heating a specially designed alloy to high temperatures in a nitrogen-containing environment. Nitridation forms pin-hole defect-free protective nitride surface coatings.

Proof of principle for the nitridation approach was established with model Ni-Cr base alloys readily amenable to Cr-nitride surface layer formation. Nitrided model alloy plates were subjected to cyclic single-cell fuel cell testing at Los Alamos National Laboratory (~1,100 h, using a cycle of 0.94 V for 1 min, 0.60 V for 30 min, 0.70 V for 20 min, and 0.50 V for 20 min). An additional 24 full shutdowns (cell cooled off, gases removed, opened to air at connections) were superimposed in an attempt to induce even more aggressive conditions. No loss of performance was observed. In fact, performance slightly increased during testing. Unfortunately, however, nickel-base alloys are too expensive for many PEMFC applications. The current effort is therefore focused on nitridation of Fe-Cr base stainless steels, which have the potential to meet bipolar plate cost targets.

Contact: Mike Brady, bradymp@ornl.gov

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Advanced Cathode Catalysts for Fuel Cells (Completed)

Contact: Karren More, morekl1@ornl.gov

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