This paper reports on the study of gas diffusion media (GDM) intrusion into reactant gas channels and its effect on the performance of the proton exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cell. The PEM fuel cell under consideration consists of a membrane electrode assembly (MEA) sandwiched between two layers of gas diffusion media commonly made of carbon paper or cloth. The GDM/MEA/GDM assembly is then compressed between two adjacent bi-polar plates. In this configuration, the compression pressure is transmitted under the lands of the reactant gas flow-field onto GDMs on which the portion over the channels remain unsupported. Because of the relatively low bending and compressive stiffness, it is found that GDMs can easily intrude into the reactant gas channels. The direct consequence of GDM intrusion is the pressure drop increase in the reactant gases in the intruded channels. This is further compounded by cell-to-cell or channel-to-channel variation in GDM thickness and mechanical properties, which results in non-uniform reactant gas flow distribution and ultimately negatively impacts the fuel cell performance. In this study, we have developed a GDM intrusion model based on the finite element method (FEM. We have also devised an experimental setup to measure the GDM intrusion, in which we found good agreement between the model prediction and experimental measurement. Combining the FEM based intrusion model and a flow redistribution model we have investigated the effect of GDM channel intrusion on the reactant flow distribution and the impact on the fuel cell performance. It is found that a 20% reduction of reactant flow can be induced with a 5% additional blockage in channels by GDM intrusion. Based on the findings from the current study, we attribute the significant performance variation in a 30-cell fuel cell stack to the variation in reactant flow induced by the variation in GDM intrusion. The results from the analytical study and fuel cell testing both suggested that the product variations in GDM would need to be significantly reduced and the stiffness of the GDM would need to be increased if the PEM fuel cells of high power density were to be used reliably at a relatively low stoichiometry.

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