January 2007

Research Project to Help Develop Higher-Performance Fuel Cells for Aerospace Power Needs

Jim Fenton and Nazim Muradov are leading a new research project to optimize polymer electrolyte membrane fuel cells (PEMFC) for aerospace auxiliary power applications, thanks to a $70,000 grant from the State University System of Florida (SUS).

The project, part of the NASA-funded SUS Florida Turbine Initiative, will help develop fuel cells as a power source for a wide range of applications.  NASA is especially interested in PEMFCs as the main source of auxiliary power in aerospace applications where key requirements are fuel cell efficiency, power density and fuel flexibility.

Photo of Eric Martin in front of display
Franklyn Smith, left, and Vishal Mittal test a PEM fuel cell coupled with a hydrocarbon reformer.

Muradov pointed out that what makes this new project unique is that “it involves an integration of two novel devices – a pyrolytic fuel processor (PFP) which was developed and patented at FSEC, and a high-temperature PEMFC, an area where FSEC is conducting pioneering research.”  He added that “operation of PEMFC at high temperatures increases the overall system efficiency, reduces the effects of carbon monoxide poisoning of the anode from impure hydrogen feed, and accelerates the electrochemical reaction kinetics.”  With the current PEMFC technology, operating at low temperatures and high relative humidity results in maximum power density but decreases the overall system efficiency because of heat and water management issues. FSEC is currently the lead organization on the research and development activity for the U.S. Department of Energy’s high temperature, low relative humidity membrane program.

The new research program will focus on the combination of the PFP with PEMFC to achieve higher performance by solving the daunting problem associated with hydrogen storage; obviating the need for external humidification of hydrogen gas; eliminating energy intensive gas conditioning and purification steps, and offering simplicity. 

Muradov added that the development of the PFP-PEMFC power generator with increased energy efficiency and power density would be beneficial not only to aerospace, but also to a variety of terrestrial applications.