October 2004

Message from the Director

photo of Dr. James Fenton sitting at desk
Dr. James Fenton

I’m pleased to let you know about an exciting new contract FSEC has received to lead research and development activity for the U.S. Department of Energy’s High Temperature, Low Relative Humidity Membrane Program. The high temperature membrane (<150ºC) is a key component of the Proton Exchange Membrane Fuel Cell (PEMFC). This fuel cell will be the engine of our automobiles of tomorrow.

This is a program I’ve been very involved with for a number of years and FSEC has received a major contract of $1,500,000 over three years to conduct important research in this area and to play a key role in coordinating the activities of the program’s working group.

What’s most impressive in this, however, is that we’re sitting in the driver’s seat of a $19 million DOE effort that has funded 12 projects aimed at advancing membrane durability and extending shelf-life while bringing down the costs. As the program lead, we’ll be coordinating these projects and playing a key role in directing the efforts of the other participating universities in developing membranes that will allow hydrogen to create electricity to power vehicles.

Increased performance and durability of membrane electrode assemblies will improve the efficiency of automobile proton exchange membrane fuel cells, a technology that offers great promise in dramatically reducing our country’s dependence on foreign oil. This project will let us work closely with a number of the country’s leading researchers in fuel cells to advance the potential of this technology.

Proton exchange membrane fuel cells have been receiving a great deal of attention worldwide because of their potential use in the hydrogen economy. They are typically used at operating temperatures between 60 – 80ºC, but also have use at elevated temperatures higher than 100ºC. The ability for current automotive radiators to reject heat is insufficient at continuous full power waste heat loads for 60 – 80ºC fuel cell stack temperatures so running the stack at 120ºC under full load would allow the use of radiators similar to those available in automobiles today. This has driven the need for the development of high-temperature membranes and membrane electrode assemblies that could operate at temperatures of up to 120ºC, low relative humidity and near atmospheric pressure.

An FSEC research and development team will prepare and evaluate new polymeric electrolyte phosphotungstic acid composite membranes. FSEC researchers working with the fuel cell community will also develop standardized experimental methodologies to measure conductivity as a function of relative humidity and mechanical properties of membranes; characterize mechanical, mass transport and surface properties of the membranes, and predict durability of the membranes and their membrane electrode assemblies fabricated by the team for both the in-house research program and for membranes provided by the High Temperature, Low Relative Humidity Membrane Working Group members.

FSEC will provide this group with standardized tests and methodologies and short course education offerings on these test methodologies along with membrane electrode assembly fabrication techniques so that at the end of three years all members of the Group will be able to perform this work in their own facility. An easily implemented protocol and rapid test apparatus for evaluating the through-thickness conductivity (or resistance) of membranes over a broad range of conditions will be developed. FSEC will use our experience in developing accredited standardized test methods for the solar thermal, photovoltaic and building energy efficiency industries to support this activity.

In addition to the research activities, this project includes organizing the meetings and activities of the High Temperature, Low Relative Humidity Membrane Working Group by coordinating for the bi-annual meetings. This is an important group in conducting research in this field and we’re honored to be playing a central role in coordinating activities of the nation’s leading researchers in this technology.

More information on the High Technology Membrane Working Group and their activities is available at http://www1.eere.energy.gov/hydrogenandfuelcells/htmwg.html.

NOTE: The other organizations selected to participate in these research projects are the Colorado School of Mines, Pennsylvania State University, Virginia Tech, Giner Electrochemical Systems, University of Tennessee, Case Western Reserve University (two projects), FuelCell Energy, Clemson University, General Electric (GE Global Research), and Arizona State University. You can read more about the overall program in DOE’s news release at http://www.energy.gov/news/3098.htm

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