Airbreathing Fuel Cell Stacks For Portable Power Applications

M. S. Wilson, D. DeCaro, J. K. Neutzler, C. Zawodzinski and S. Gottesfeld Electronic and Electrochemical Materials and Devices Research Group, MS D429, Los Alamos National Laboratory, Los Alamos New Mexico 87545


Increasing attention is being directed towards polymer electrolyte fuel cells as battery replacements because of their potentially superior energy densities and the possibility of "mechanical" refueling. On the low end of the power requirement scale (ca. 10 W), fuel cells can compete with primary and secondary batteries only if the fuel cell systems are simple, inexpensive, and reliable. Considerations of cost and simplicity (and minimal parasitic power) discourage the use of conventional performance enhancing subsystems (e.g., humidification, cooling, or forced-reactant flow). Thus, we are developing a stack design that is inherently self-regulating to allow effective operation without the benefit of such auxiliary components [1-3]. As such, the air cathode does not use forced flow to replenish the depleted oxygen. Instead, the oxygen in the air must diffuse into the stack from the periphery of the unit cells. For this reason the stack is described as "air-breathing." This configuration limits the ability of water to escape which prevents the polymer electrolyte membranes from drying out, even at relatively high continuous operation temperatures (+60"C). This results in stacks with reliable and stable performance.

This air-breathing configuration assumes a unique stack geometry that utilizes circular flow-field plates with an annular hydrogen feed manifold and the single tie-bolt extending up through the central axis of the stack. With this geometry, the hydrogen supply to the unit cells is radially outward, and the air supply is from the periphery inward. This configuration has several advantages. The entire periphery is free to air access and allows greater heat conduction to enhance cooling. Furthermore, all of the components in the stack (e.g., the flow-fields, seals and membrane/electrode assemblies), are radially symmetrical, so part fabrication is simple and the entire system is potentially low-cost. Lastly, this configuration is compact and lightweight.

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