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Fuel Cells are the Future of Zero Emission Motor Vehicles

A fuel cell is a device that uses hydrogen to cleanly and efficiently produce electricity. Fuel cells are unique in terms of the variety of their potential applications; they can provide power for systems as large as a utility power station and as small as a laptop computer.

“Fuel cells are more energy-efficient than combustion engines and the hydrogen used to power them can come from a variety of sources,” says Hongtan Liu, a professor in the College of Engineering’s Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. “If pure hydrogen is used as a fuel, fuel cells emit only heat and water, eliminating concerns about air pollutants or greenhouse gases.”

Fuel cells work like batteries, but they do not need recharging. They require a continuous source of fuel and oxygen to sustain the chemical reaction, whereas in a battery the chemical energy comes from chemicals already present in the battery. Fuel cells can produce electricity continuously for as long as fuel and oxygen are supplied.

Liu’s research focuses on polymer electrolyte membrane fuel cells – also called proton exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cells. “PEM fuel cells have a high power density; they deliver a lot of power with a relatively low weight and small volume,” explains Liu. “They are utilized primarily for transportation applications. Their fast startup time and favorable power-to-weight ratio make them particularly suitable for use in passenger vehicles, such as cars and buses.”

Liu received funding from AvCarb Material Solutions, a leading supplier of engineered carbon products for mission-critical applications, to continue his research on PEM fuel cells using materials from AvCarb Material Solutions. Specifically, Liu and his team will assist in experimentally evaluating the performance of certain gas diffusion layers (GDLs) in an operating PEM fuel cell.

“In PEM fuel cells, GDLs facilitate the transport of reactants, as well as the removal of water,” says Liu. “Each GDL is typically composed of a sheet of carbon paper in which the carbon fibers are partially coated with polytetrafluoroethylene. Gases diffuse rapidly through the pores in the GDL, hence its name.”

Liu and his team will test the GDLs from AvCarb Material Solutions in the typical conditions of an operating automotive. They will evaluate the performance of fuel cells with different designs and materials. The results of the experimental research will provide directions for AvCarb Material Solutions to improve and optimize its advanced GDL designs.

“The importance of the research lies in improving the efficiency of PEM fuel cells, improving their energy output without increasing their cost,” says Liu. “By doing so, we are helping make fuel cell vehicles more attractive to consumers, ultimately replacing conventional vehicles that run on gasoline or diesel.”

The research project is officially titled, “Advanced GDL Designs for High Volume Manufacturing.”

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