Experimental Studies on the Mechanical Durability of Proton Exchange Membranes

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Virginia Tech

Three testing methods are proposed to characterize properties of fuel cell materials that affect the mechanical durability of proton exchange membranes (PEMs). The first two methods involved measuring the in-plane biaxial strength of PEMs and the biaxial hygrothermal stresses that occur in PEMs during hygrothermal cycles. The third method investigated the nonuniform thickness and compressibility of gas diffusion media which can lead to concentrated compressive stresses in the PEM in the through-plane direction.

Fatigue and creep to leak tests using multi-cell pressure-loaded blister fixtures were conducted to obtain the lifetimes of PEMs before reaching a threshold value of gas leakage. These tests are believed to be more relevant than quasi-static uniaxial tensile to rupture tests because of the introduction of biaxial cyclic and sustained loading and the use of gas leakage as the failure criterion. They also have advantages over relative humidity cycling test because of the controllable mechanical loading. Nafion® NRE-211 membrane was tested at three different temperatures and the time-temperature superposition principle was used to construct a stress-lifetime master curve. Tested at 90°C, extruded Ion Power® N111-IP membrane was found to have longer lifetime than Gore™-Select® 57 and Nafion NRE-211 membranes under the same blister pressure profiles.

Bimaterial specimens fabricated by bonding a piece of PEM to a substrate material were used to measure the hygral stresses, compressive and tensile, in the PEM during relative humidity cycles. The substrate material and its thickness were carefully chosen so that stresses in the PEM could be obtained directly from the curvature of the bimaterial specimen without knowing the constitutive properties of the PEM. Three commercial PEMs were tested at 80°C by cycling the relative humidity between 90% and 0% and by drying the membrane to 0%RH after submersion in liquid water. Stress histories for all three membranes show strong time-dependencies and Nafion® NRE-211 exhibited the largest tensile stress upon drying.

Besides in-plane stresses, hard spots in gas diffusion media (GDM) can locally overcompress PEMs in the out-of-plane direction and cause electrical shorting. In this study, GDM samples sealed with an impermeable Kapton® film on the surface were compressed with uniform air pressure and the nonuniform displacement field was measured with a three-dimensional digital image correlation technique. Hard spots as a result of the nonuniform thickness and compressibility of the GDM were found and their severities as stress risers are evident. Locally, a nominal platen compression (similar to bipolar plate land compression) of 0.68 MPa can lead to compressive stress as large as 2.30 MPa in various hard spots that are in the order of 100s µm to 1 mm in size.

pressure-loaded blister, gas diffusion media, fatigue and creep to leak lifetime, micro-compression test, electrical shorting, bimaterial curvature method, hygrothermal stress, digital image correlation, gas crossover resistance, proton exchange membrane fuel cell