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Ames Laboratory researchers solve fuel-cell membrane structure conundrum
Date:12/11/2007

AMES, Iowa Fuel-cell cars are reaching commercial viability in todays increasingly eco-conscious society, but despite their promise, even scientists have struggled to explain just how the fuel-cells central component the proton exchange membrane really works.

However, a team of researchers at the U.S. Department of Energys Ames Laboratory has offered a new model that provides the best explanation to date for the membranes structure and how it functions. And armed with that information, scientists should be able to build similar fuel-cell membrane materials that are less expensive or have different properties, such as higher operating temperatures.

A fuel cell works by pumping hydrogen gas through the proton exchange membrane. In the process, the hydrogen gives up electrons in the form of electricity, then combines with oxygen gas to form water as the by-product. It can also work in reverse when current is applied, water is split into its component gases, hydrogen and oxygen.

The model proposed by Ames Laboratory scientists Klaus Schmidt-Rohr and Qiang Chen, and detailed in the Dec. 9 issue of the journal Nature Materials, looked specifically at Nafion, a widely used perfluorinated polymer film that stands out for its high selective permeability to water and protons. Schmidt-Rohr, who is also a professor of chemistry at Iowa State University, suggests that Nafion has a closely packed network of nanoscale cylindrical water channels running in parallel through the material.

From nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR), we know that Nafion molecules have a rigid backbone structure with hair-like defects along the chain, Schmidt-Rohr said, but we didnt know just how these molecule were arranged. Some have proposed spheroidal water clusters, others a web-like network of water channels.

Our theory is that these hydrophobic (water-hating) backbone structures cluster together, he continued, to form long rigid cylinders abo
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Contact: Kerry Gibson
kgibson@ameslab.gov
515-294-1405
DOE/Ames Laboratory
Source:Eurekalert

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