At Sandia National Laboratories, researcher Cy Fujimoto, in partnership with Automotive Fuel Cell Cooperation (AFCC), is developing a polymer electrolyte membrane (PEM) that can operate optimally with minimum on-board humidification and low gas crossover. Current fuel cell vehicles run optimally when the air and hydrogen fuel is humidified, which requires high pressures and additional systems controls. Hydrogen is normally recirculated in the fuel loop, and nitrogen buildup due to crossover from the air side causes unwanted purging of fuel which affects overall vehicle range.

The work of Fujimoto and other Sandia researchers is part of a cooperative research and development agreement (CRADA) with AFCC, a private joint-venture company in Canada, formed by combining the automotive fuel cell business of Ballard Power Systems with the fuel cell stack development departments of Daimler and Ford.

Sandia researcher Cy Fujimoto demonstrates his new flexible hydrocarbon polymer electrolyte membrane, which could be a key factor in realizing a hydrogen car.

Current automotive fuel cell membrane proton pathways shrink as the material dehydrates, resulting in increased internal cell resistance and diminished function of the fuel cell in cars operating in dry climates without humidification. The Sandia hydrocarbon PEM material allows for larger pathways for proton movement, even in low humidity climates. It can perform well in both dry and wet environments.

Another major challenge is to get the cost of manufacturing the membrane low enough to be practical for mass production, something Sandia researchers are working on with AFCC. Efforts are underway to “scale up the chemistry” to lower costs.

Developing a fuel cell membrane that can meet the automotive targets set out by automakers and the U.S. DOE can have a very positive impact on the U.S. economy. An improved hydrocarbon membrane developed at Sandia has a good chance to be the material of choice for future generation fuel cell vehicles.

Read more about the ECIS- Automotive Fuel Cell Corp. partnership.