Engineered electrode assemblies for PEM fuel cells

Yang Shao-Horn

Fuel cells—electrochemical engines that combine hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity—show promise as a solution to both "global warming" and to energy shortages by providing low-cost, emission-free energy generation. In particular, proton exchange membrane fuel cells (PEMFCs) have great potential and may one-day power cars, heat homes, or serve as mobile generators. However, cost must be reduced significantly if PEMFCs are to compete with existing and advanced power generation technologies.

A single PEMFC consists of two electrodes sandwiched around an ionic conductor membrane. These electrodes contain a substantial amount of platinum as a catalyst that assists oxidation of hydrogen and reduction of oxygen— processes that are essential to the practical energy-conversion efficiency of these devices. Catalysts in electrodes are the primary cause of the high cost of PEMFCs.
Building on work funded by a previous Deshpande Center grant, this project aims to meet the challenge of reducing cost through a novel electrode fabrication technique that would maximize catalyst utilization. Any company involved in electrochemistry, including manufacturers of primary (non-rechargeable) batteries, secondary (rechargeable) batteries, fuel cells, and chemicals by electrolysis, would have a potential interest in licensing this process. And ultimately, if initial data are correct, this project could alter the economics of PEMFCs and enable the commercialization of this important technology.