Performance Evaluation and Characterization of Metallic Bipolar Plates in a Proton Exchange Membrane (PEM) Fuel Cell
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Bipolar plate and membrane electrode assembly (MEA) are the two most repeated components of a proton exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cell stack. Bipolar plates comprise more than 60% of the weight and account for 30% of the total cost of a fuel cell stack. The bipolar plates perform as current conductors between cells, provide conduits for reactant gases, facilitate water and thermal management through the cell, and constitute the backbone of a power stack. In addition, bipolar plates must have excellent corrosion resistance to withstand the highly corrosive environment inside the fuel cell, and they must maintain low interfacial contact resistance throughout the operation to achieve optimum power density output. Currently, commercial bipolar plates are made of graphite composites because of their relatively low interfacial contact resistance (ICR) and high corrosion resistance. However, graphite composite's manufacturability, permeability, and durability for shock and vibration are unfavorable in comparison to metals. Therefore, metals have been considered as a replacement material for graphite composite bipolar plates. Since bipolar plates must possess the combined advantages of both metals and graphite composites in the fuel cell technology, various methods and techniques are being developed to combat metallic corrosion and eliminate the passive layer formed on the metal surface that causes unacceptable power reduction and possible fouling of the catalyst and the electrolyte. The main objective of this study was to explore the possibility of producing efficient, cost-effective and durable metallic bipolar plates that were capable of functioning in the highly corrosive fuel cell environment. Bulk materials such as Poco graphite, graphite composite, SS310, SS316, incoloy 800, titanium carbide and zirconium carbide were investigated as potential bipolar plate materials. In this work, different alloys and compositions of chromium carbide coatings on aluminum and SS316 substrates were also tested for suitability in performing as PEM fuel cell bipolar plates. Interfacial contact resistance and accelerated corrosion resistance tests were carried out for various bulk materials and chromium carbide coatings. Results of the study showed that chromium carbide protective coatings had relatively low interfacial contact resistance and moderate corrosion resistance in comparison to other metals.Single fuel cells with 6.45cm2 and 50cm2 active areas were fabricated and tested for performance and lifetime durability using chromium carbide coated aluminum bipolar plates and graphite composite bipolar plates as a control reference. Polarization curves and power curves were recorded from these single cells under various load conditions. The results showed that coated aluminum bipolar plates had an advantage of anchoring the terminals directly into the plates resulting in higher power density of the fuel cell. This was due to the elimination of additional ICR to the power stack caused by the need for extra terminal plates. However, this study also revealed that direct terminal anchoring was efficient and useable only with metallic bipolar plates but was inapplicable to graphite composite plates due to the poor mechanical strength and brittleness of the graphite composite material. In addition, the 1000 hour lifetime testing of coated aluminum single cells conducted at 70øC cell temperature under cyclic loading condition showed minimal power degradation (<5%) due to metal corrosion. Surface characterization was also conducted on the bipolar plates and MEAs to identify possible chemical change to their surfaces during the fuel cell operation and the electrochemical reaction.The single cell performance evaluation was complemented by an extended study on the fuel cell stack level. For the latter, a ten-cell graphite composite stack with a 40 cm2 active area was fabricated and evaluated for the effect of humidity and operating temperature on the stack performance. Graphite plates were selected for this study to eliminate any possible metal corrosion. A finite element analysis (FEA) model of a bipolar plate was developed to evaluate the effect of air cooling system design parameters and different bipolar plate materials on maintaining the PEM power stack at a safe operating temperature of 80øC or less. In the final stage of this work, a three-cell metallic stack with a 50 cm2 active area and coated aluminum bipolar plates was fabricated based on the positive results that were obtained from earlier studies. The three-cell stack was successfully operated and tested for 750 hours at different temperatures and power densities. This laboratory testing coupled with characterization studies showed that small amounts of aluminum oxide were observed on the coating surface due to localized imperfections in the coating and a lack of protection in the uncoated areas, such as internal manifolds and mounting plates. However, the scanning electron microscopy (SEM) and the energy dispersive x-ray spectroscopy (EDX) showed that coating thickness, chemistry, and surface morphology remained consistent after 750 hours of operation.