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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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  • Rod Borup
  • MPA-11, Fuel Cell Program Manager
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  • Andrew Dattelbaum
  • MPA-11 Group Leader
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  • Melissa Fox
  • Applied Energy Program Manager
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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.
Fuel Cell Testing

Experimental equipment that is essential to our fuel cell efforts is housed in 24 laboratories at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. A partial list of the equipment in our laboratories includes: 31 single-cell fuel cell (FC) test stands (all hydrogen-capable but several have additional equipment to support direct methanol fuel cell (DMFC) testing). Test stands have ability to perform drive-cycle testing and/or potential cycling; one FC stack test stand (20kWe, but load bank could be upgraded); two low-current (<50 Amp) stack test stands (1-49 cells and 6 cell test capability); two fuel processing test stands, capable of chemical flows equivalent to 50 kWe; two modular fuel processors (50 kWe equivalent); one gasoline reformer (50 kWe equivalent); one modular fuel processor capable of unattended operation (~10 kW thermal); one diesel reformer (~10kWe equivalent); nine potentiostat-galvanostats for electroanalytical characterization; two bipotentiostat, rotator, and rotating ring disk electrode (RRDE) system for voltammetric and electrokinetic studies; four Solartron high frequency response analyzers for ac impedance conductivity measurements; one segmented cell and supporting hardware (all LANL designed) for FC spatial performance diagnostics; four hot presses for membrane electrode assembly (MEA) preparation.

Support equipment includes: one Proton Energy Systems Hogen 40 electrolyzer (PEM, 18slpm/38scfh hydrogen generation rate); one Teledyne Energy Systems Titan HM50 electrolyzer (alkaline, 50slpm/106scfh hydrogen generation rate); two Pd-membrane hydrogen gas purifiers for hydrogen-air FC testing; two centralized oil-free air supply systems; ability to simulate any desired fuel gas mixture, including impurities at ppb levels, with desired steam and carbon dioxide content at a controlled temperature. Fuel processing and stack testing laboratories can support flows equivalent to 50 kWe; two centralized de-ionized (DI) water systems and several smaller-throughput systems. Nitrogen and DI water are distributed to most labs along with hydrogen and oil-free air; hydrogen, CO and oxygen safety monitoring systems throughout experimental spaces with automated safety actions, alarms and readouts; two computerized numerical control (CNC) milling machines for machining FC flow fields and other FC hardware.

Hydrogen - Safety, Codes and Standards

The potential benefits of a Hydrogen Economy are large and far-reaching, but the challenges are significant. MPA-11 researchers are developing safety sensors, evaluating the impacts of hydrogen impurities on the operation of fuel cells, and providing technical expertise for the development of international regulations for hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.

LANL is a leader in the performance testing and analysis of single cell tests. In collaboration with the US Fuel Cell Council, LANL established the Single-Cell Testing Protocol, a series of precise fuel cell procedures that are used by research teams across the U.S. and around the world to perform reproducible baseline characterization. This protocol, in combination with LANL’s work on the effects of contaminants, will be essential in the development of fuel quality standards.

LANL supports the International Partnership for the Hydrogen Economy (IPHE) / European Commission (EC) task on fuel cell testing, safety and quality assurance, FCTESqa. The proposal submitted to the EC had 48 participants, including Los Alamos, and the EC portion of this task has been selected for funding. Los Alamos National Laboratory is a world-wide recognized leader in the performance testing and analysis of single cell tests. In collaboration with the USFCC (U.S. Fuel Cell Council), we established precise fuel cell procedures to perform reproducible baseline characterization, the so-called Single Cell Testing Protocol. This expertise, in combination with our previous work on the effects of contaminants, will be essential in the development of fuel quality testing procedures. The EC is developing a standard test protocol using the most relevant procedures from the completed European FCTESTNET project. In this effort, we will compare protocols and develop new procedures to perform single cell tests and data analysis, and perform baseline and performance test(s) in cooperation with the European partners. As the collaboration unfolds, this effort will include testing the effect of selected contaminants (singly and in mixtures) on fuel cell performance.

LANL also provides technical expertise for the international collaborative development and implementation of performance-based codes, standards and regulations. The development of performance-based and harmonized international codes, standards and regulations is critical to fair and open competition in worldwide markets for hydrogen and fuel cell vehicles. Teaming with the Department of Transportation, the Department of Energy, through LANL, has played a key role in redirecting efforts that could have resulted in design-specific regulations for on-board hydrogen storage, through active participation in the United Nations/Economic Commission for Europe (UN/ECE) World Harmonization of Vehicle Regulations (referred to as WP.29). The US, in collaboration with representatives from Europe (primarily Germany) and Japan, led an effort to develop a roadmap to a global technical regulation (GTR). This roadmap effort is strongly supported by the leadership of WP.29 as a path forward to a promising Hydrogen Future, wherein we will "not sacrifice the long term for short-term political issues."

Key Personnel at LANL
  • Rod Borup: Fuel cell durability; water management; fuel processing
  • Eric Brosha: Electrocatalyst supports; electrochemical gas sensors
  • Yu Seung Kim: Membrane and membrane-electrode assembly; alkaline fuel cells
  • Cortney Kreller: Chemistry of fuel cell materials; electrocatalysis
  • Rangachary Mukundan: Fuel cell durability; water management; electrochemical gas sensors
  • Tommy Rockward: Impurity effects
  • Mahlon Wilson: Electrocatalysis; fuel cell engineering
  • Piotr Zelenay: Non-precious metal electrocatalysis; anode and cathode electrocatalysis; direct methanol fuel cells
Post-docs and Students
History of LANL Fuel Cell Program

The Laboratory’s role in the development of hydrogen as an energy source began with research on its use as a transportation fuel. Utilizing expertise gained from Project Rover, a Laboratory program aimed at developing a nuclear powered rocket, Laboratory scientists in the mid-1970s converted a Buick passenger car and a pickup truck to run on hydrogen by modifying the vehicles’ internal combustion engines and storing liquid hydrogen on-board in cryogenic dewars. 

By 1977, Laboratory researchers had converted a golf cart to utilize a hydrogen-oxygen phosphoric acid fuel cell for electrical power. That same year, the newly established Department of Energy awarded the first Fuel Cells for Transportation program to the then-Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory. This early work, coupled with a litany of successes along the way, has made Los Alamos fuel cell research one of the longest running non-defense programs at the Laboratory.

Based on this 28-year course of research, the Laboratory holds several seminal patents required by fuel cell product developers. One of the breakthrough technologies was the development in the late 1980s and early 1990s of the thin-film, low platinum electrode for the polymer electrolyte membrane (PEM) fuel cell. This innovation dramatically lowered the required amount of precious platinum metal catalyst by a factor of more than 20, while simultaneously improving performance. Fuel cell manufacturers worldwide currently use this PEM approach.

Another Los Alamos innovation was a dramatically improved tolerance to hydrogen impurities, which enabled low temperature PEM fuel cells to operate not only with pure hydrogen, but also with hydrogen-rich gas streams derived from hydrocarbon fuels like gasoline, methanol, propane and natural gas.

From the beginning, Los Alamos researchers have worked closely with industry. The formal establishment of the Los Alamos/General Motors Joint Development Center in 1991 was an effort funded by General Motors and the DOE that focused on development of the electrochemical engine — a PEM fuel cell-power system fueled by methanol converted on demand to a hydrogen-rich gas.

In 2003, the program direction shifted with the focus on PEM fuel cells running on pure hydrogen stored onboard the vehicle. This change in emphasis, embodied in President Bush’s Freedom Cooperative Automotive Research and Fuel Initiative, resulted from a desire to minimize the country’s dependence on imported oil while minimizing the environmental impacts of transportation. Storing enough hydrogen onboard a vehicle to enable a 350-mile driving range has since been declared a “grand challenge.” In April 2004, a Los Alamos-led collaboration focusing on chemical hydrogen storage was awarded one of three DOE Hydrogen Storage Centers of Excellence.

Although the bulk of the Laboratory’s funding for fuel cell research comes from transportation programs, fuel cells are inherently scalable, which means they can be used to power things on a range of scales from portable electronics to homes. A fuel cell sitting beside a home, using reformed natural gas or propane, would provide not only electricity, but also waste heat that could be captured and used for home heating and hot water production.

Today, the Laboratory’s fuel cell program is working in various areas that range from attempts to extend the operating lives of fuel cell membranes to the development of low cost catalysts. For a program that began with a Buick, the technology has come along way.

By Todd Hanson, LANL 
October 6, 2005

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

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