In this study, we focused on nano- and micro-scale cracks in the catalyst layer and the micro porous layer of polymer electrolyte membrane fuel cells (PEMFCs) and its impact on cell performance. We applied wet-dry cycles to a conventional test cell to investigate crack generation in the catalyst layer and the micro porous layer. Wet-dry cycles, in which cell temperature was kept at 353K with high- and low-humidified gas alternately applied to the cell, potentially induced mechanical stress to a membrane electrode assembly (MEA) due to membrane hydration and dehydration. As a result, significant degradation of performance was found after the wet-dry cycles. We performed cross-sectional analysis of MEA by using a cross-sectional polisher (CP) and scanning electron microscopy (SEM) to investigate nano- and micro-scale crack generated by the wet-dry cycles in the MEA. The SEM images showed that nano- and micro-scale cracks were significantly generated in the catalyst layer as well as in the micro porous layer after the cycles. We identified cracks in the MEA with different morphologies according to the SEM images, hence, through-plane cracks and in-plane cracks. Through-plane cracks have a deep-valley structure in the MEA while in-plane cracks are formed in an interfacial region between the catalyst layer and the micro porous layer. In-plane cracks could be generated by detachment of the catalyst layer from the micro porous layer due to the wet-dry cycles and potentially decrease in cell performance due to deterioration of electron transport in the MEA. In addition, in case liquid water is accumulated in in-plane cracks, these cracks potentially disturb gas diffusion from the micro porous layer to the catalyst layer. These results clearly showed that mechanical stress induced crack generation in the MEA, resulting in intensive effects on cell performance in PEMFC.

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