Air-cooled polymer electrolyte membrane (PEM) fuel cells have recently been the center of attention mainly because of the simplicity they bring into the fuel cell industry. Their main advantage is the elimination of balance-of-plant subsystems such as the liquid coolant loop, heat exchanger, compressor, and air humidifier which greatly reduces the complexity, parasitic power, and cost of the overall system. In air-cooled fuel cells, air is used as a combined oxidant and coolant. However, the net power output is limited by the heat rejection rate and the overall performance and durability are restricted by high temperature gradients during stack operation. An important initial step toward this goal is accurate knowledge of the temperature distribution in the stack in order to optimize heat removal by suitable thermal management strategies.

In the present study, a three dimensional numerical model is developed that can predict the temperature distribution in cell level with an acceptable accuracy. Using this methodology, the maximum temperature in the stack as well as temperature gradients, which are two essential operating parameters for air-cooled fuel cells, can be obtained. The model is validated using experimental data for the 1020ACS fuel cell stack from Ballard Power Systems. A parametric study is performed for bipolar plate thermal conductivity and overall thermal characteristics on the cell level to examine the effects of these parameters on the maximum stack temperature, temperature gradient in the cell, and overall heat rejection rate. Based on these results, recommendations are provided for improved thermal design of air-cooled fuel cells.

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