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Fuel Cells

Research into alternative forms of energy, especially energy security, is one of the major national security imperatives of this century.

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  • Fernando Garzon
  • Sensors & Electrochemical Devices
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  • Piotr Zelenay
  • Sensors & Electrochemical Devices
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  • Rod Borup
  • Sensors & Electrochemical Devices
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  • Karen E. Kippen
  • Experimental Physical Sciences
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Like a battery, a fuel cell consists of two electrodes separated by an electrolyte—in polymer electrolyte fuel cells, the separator is made of a thin polymeric membrane. Unlike a battery, a fuel cell does not need recharging—it continues to produce electricity as long as fuel flows through it.

Converting chemical energy of hydrogenated fuels into electricity

Project Description

Invented in 1839, fuels cells powered the Gemini and Apollo space missions, as well as the space shuttle. Although fuel cells have been successfully used in such applications, they have proven difficult to make more cost-effective and durable for commercial applications, particularly for the rigors of daily transportation.

Since the 1970s, scientists at Los Alamos have managed to make various scientific breakthroughs that have contributed to the development of modern fuel cell systems. Specific efforts include the following:

  • Finding alternative and more cost-effective catalysts than platinum.
  • Enhancing the durability of fuel cells by developing advanced materials and modifying operating strategies that reduce degradation.
  • Understanding the behavior of fuel cell impurities that inhibit performance.
  • Finding ways to better control water distribution to enhance the performance of electrolyte membrane fuel cells.
Capabilities
Fuel cell development capabilities
  • hydrogen-air polymer electrolyte fuel cells
  • direct methanol fuel cells
  • alkaline membrane fuel cells
Fuel cell associated capabilities
  • anode and cathode electrocatalysis
  • membrane development
  • MEA (membrane electrode assemblies) design, characterization, and fabrication performance durability degradation testing and reduction
  • sensor development
  • innovative stack design
Testing and diagnostics
  • single fuel cells and fuel cell stacks
  • fuel processors
  • fuel cell system components
  • electrolyzers
  • fuel impurity characteristics
Technologies and Applications: Emerging, Developed, or Potential

Breakthroughs

  • Developed a novel methodology to avoid the use of platinum in hydrogen fuel cells. Platinum is a precious metal more expensive than gold. The alternative, platinum-free methodology uses nitrogen-(transition metal)-carbon oxygen reduction catalysts for the fuel cell cathode that yield high power output, good efficiency, and promising longevity.
  • Developed a revolutionary way to build membrane electrode assemblies (MEAs) for PEM fuel cells. This methodology can significantly enhance MEA durability, reduce manufacturing costs, and extend the lifetime of a fuel-cell product. The methodology uses a unique polymer dispersion that can be applied to both perfluorinated sulfonic acid and hydrocarbon-based MEAs to produce superior electrode performance, stability, and durability during harsh operating conditions for fuel cells.

Accomplishments

  • Improved cell tolerance to hydrogen impurities and performance in the presence of impurities. Such improvement enabled low-temperature PEM fuel cells to operate not only with pure hydrogen but also with hydrogen-rich gas streams derived from hydrocarbon fuels, such as gasoline, methanol, propane, or natural gas.
  • Developed a technology that uses ammonia borane as a “chemical storage tank” for hydrogen fuel. This ammonia borane system enables the hydrogen to be easily extracted from the fuel cell. This development could enable vehicles to travel more than 300 miles on a single tank-equivalent of fuel.
  • Developed advanced diagnostics to evaluate the performance of fuel stacks and electrolyzers. Developed improved small-scale generation of hydrogen from gaseous and liquid hydrocarbon fuels. As well as automotive-scale gas cleanup technology to remove trace contaminants from the hydrogen fuel stream.

Highlights

  • Working on improving direct methanol fuel cells (DMFCs). In a DMFC, methanol solutions in water are fed into the anode as fuel. This allows for a substantial system simplification relative to reformate-based fuel cells and a higher energy density than that presently available with hydrogen-based systems. Recent accomplishments for DMFCs include developing improved membranes with lower crossover, successfully deploying membrane/electrode assemblies based on these new polymers in fuel cells, and demonstrating stacks and (in collaboration with Ball Aerospace) systems based on Los Alamos stacks.
LANL Facilities and Resources
  • Fuel-Cell Testing: Los Alamos has experimental equipment for fuel-cell testing at 24 laboratories. Such equipment includes ~40 single-cell fuel-cell test stands (all are hydrogen capable, but several can support direct methanol fuel-cell testing), one fuel-cell stack test stand, nine potentiostat-galvanostats for electroanalytical characterization, four Solartron high-frequency response analyzers, one segmented cell and supporting hardware, and four hot presses for membrane electrode assembly preparation.
Key Personnel at LANL
  • Rod Borup: Fuel cell durability; water management; fuel processing
  • Eric Brosha: Electrocatalyst supports
  • Fernando Garzon: Chemistry of fuel cell materials; electrocatalysis; energy storage
  • Yu Seung Kim: Membrane and membrane-electrode assembly; alkaline fuel cells
  • Rangachary Mukundan: Fuel cell durability; water management; electrochemical gas sensors
  • Tommy Rockward: Impurity effects
  • Mahlon Wilson: Electrocatalysis; fuel cell engineering
  • Gang Wu: Electrocatalysis; lithium-air batteries
  • Piotr Zelenay: Anode and cathode electrocatalysis; direct methanol fuel cells
Sponsors, Funding Sources, or Agencies
  • Department of Energy/Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy
    – Fuel Cell Technologies Program
    – Vehicle Technology Program
  • Department of Energy/Office of Science/Basic Energy Sciences
  • Department of Energy/Advanced Research Projects Agency—Energy (APRA-E)
  • Laboratory-Directed Research and Development
Publications
G. Wu, K. L. More, P. Xu, H.-L. Wang, M. Ferrandon, A. J. Kropf, D. J. Myers, S. Ma, C. M. Johnston, and P. Zelenay, “Carbon-nanotube-supported graphene-rich non-precious metal oxygen reduction catalyst with enhanced performance durability,” Chem. Commun. 49(32), 3291-3293 (2013).
Q. Li, D. Spernjak, P. Zelenay, and Y. S. Kim, “Electrode Degradation of Direct Methanol Fuel Cells Evidenced by X-ray Tomography,” ECS Trans. 50(2), 2199-2205 (2012).
Q. Li, G. Wu, Z. Bi, C. M. Johnston, and P. Zelenay, “A Ternary Catalyst for Dimethyl Ether Electrooxidation,” ECS Trans. 50 (2), 1933-1941 (2012).
E. F. Holby, G. Wu, P. Zelenay, and C. D. Taylor, “Metropolis Monte Carlo Search for Non-Precious Metal Catalyst Active Sites Candidates,” ECS Trans. 50(2) 1839-1845 (2012).
G. Wu, N. H. Mack, W. Gao, S. Ma, R. Zhong, J. Han, J. Baldwin, and P. Zelenay, “Nitrogen-Doped Graphene-Enriched Co-based Catalysts for Oxygen Reduction in Non-Aqueous Lithium Electrolyte,” ACS Nano 6(11), 9764-9776 (2012).
Y. Chen, J. R. Rowlett, C. H. Lee, Y. S. Kim, Q. Li, P. Zelenay, and J. E. McGrath, “Controlled Fluorination Level Poly(arylene ether benzonitrile) Hydrophobic-Disulfonated Poly(arylene ether sulfone) Hydrophilic Multiblock Copolymer for Direct Methanol Fuel Cells (DMFCs),” Prepr. Pap.-Am. Chem. Soc., Div. Polymer. Chem. 56(2) (2012).
Dusan Spernjak, Joseph Fairweather, Rangachary Mukundan, Tommy Rockward, and Rodney L. Borup, “Influence of the microporous layer on carbon corrosion in the catalyst layer of a polymer electrolyte membrane fuel cell,” Journal of Power Sources 214, 386–398 (2012).
S. Arisetty, X. Wang, R.K. Ahluwalia, R. Mukundan, R. Borup, J. Davey, D. Langlois, F. Gambini, O. Polevaya, and S. Blanchet, “Catalyst durability in PEM fuel cells with low platinum loading,” Journal of the Electrochemical Society 159(5), B455–B462 (2012).
Jiantao Han, Jinlong Zhu, Yutao Li, Xiaohui Yu, Shanmin Wang, Gang Wu, Hui Xie, Sven C. Vogel, Fujio Izumi, and Koichi Momma, et al., “Experimental visualization of lithium conduction pathways in garnet-type Li 7La3Zr2O12,” Chemical Communications 48(79), 9840–9842 (2012).
Zhen Zheng, Ning Li, Chun-Qing Wang, De-Yu Li, Yong-Ming Zhu, and Gang Wu, “Ni-CeO2 composite cathode material for hydrogen evolution reaction in alkaline electrolyte,” International Journal of Hydrogen Energy 37(19), 13921–13932 (2012).

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