Actual Performance

Large, complex computer models are used to characterize the actual operation of fuel cells based on minute details of cell component design (physical dimensions, materials, etc.) along with physical considerations (transport phenomena, electrochemistry, etc.). These codes, often proprietary, are needed in the design and development of fuel cells, but would be cumbersome and time consuming for use in system analysis models. Simpler approaches are normally used for system studies. One approach, for example, would be to conduct tests at every condition expected to be analyzed in the system; this would, however, be very costly. Instead, it is prudent to develop correlations based on thermodynamic modeling that depict cell performance as various cell operating conditions are changed, such as temperature, pressure, and gas constituents. Thermodynamic modeling is used to depict the equations so that only a limited number of tests are needed to define design constants within the equation. Adjustments can be

Figure 2-1 shows the relation of E° to cell temperature. Because the figure shows the potential of higher temperature cells, the ideal potential corresponds to a reaction where the water product is in a gaseous state. Hence, E° is less than 1.229 at standard conditions when considering gaseous water product.

300 400 500 600 700 800 900 1000 1100 Temperature (K)

Figure 2-1 H2/O2 Fuel Cell Ideal Potential as a Function of Temperature applied to a reference performance at known operating conditions to achieve the performance at the desired operating conditions.

Useful work (electrical energy) is obtained from a fuel cell only when a reasonable current is drawn, but the actual cell potential is decreased from its equilibrium potential because of irreversible losses as shown in Figure 2-24. Several sources contribute to irreversible losses in a practical fuel cell. The losses, which are often called polarization, overpotential, or overvoltage originate primarily from three sources: (1) activation polarization (nact), (2) ohmic polarization (nohm), and (3) concentration polarization (^conc). These losses result in a cell voltage (V) for a fuel cell that is less than its ideal potential, E (V = E - Losses).

Activation Polarization
Figure 2-2 Ideal and Actual Fuel Cell Voltage/Current Characteristic

The activation polarization loss is dominant at low current density. At this point, electronic barriers have to be overcome prior to current and ion flow. Activation losses show some increase as current increases. Ohmic polarization (loss) varies directly with current, increasing over the whole range of current because cell resistance remains essentially constant. Gas transport losses occur over the entire range of current density, but these losses become prominent at high limiting currents where it becomes difficult to provide enough reactant flow to the cell reaction sites.

Activation Polarization: Activation polarization is present when the rate of an electrochemical reaction at an electrode surface is controlled by sluggish electrode kinetics. In other words, activation polarization is directly related to the rates of electrochemical reactions. There is a close similarity between electrochemical and chemical reactions in that both involve an activation barrier that must be overcome by the reacting species. In the case of an electrochemical reaction with ^act > 50-100 mV, ^act is described by the general form of the Tafel equation (see Section 2.2.4):

4 Activation region and concentration region more representative of low-temperature fuel cells.

RT i

where a is the electron transfer coefficient of the reaction at the electrode being addressed, and io is the exchange current density (see Section 2.2.4).

Ohmic Polarization: Ohmic losses occur because of resistance to the flow of ions in the electrolyte and resistance to flow of electrons through the electrode materials. The dominant ohmic losses, through the electrolyte, are reduced by decreasing the electrode separation and enhancing the ionic conductivity of the electrolyte. Because both the electrolyte and fuel cell electrodes obey Ohm's law, the ohmic losses can be expressed by the equation

where i is the current flowing through the cell, and R is the total cell resistance, which includes electronic, ionic, and contact resistance.

Concentration Polarization: As a reactant is consumed at the electrode by electrochemical reaction, there is a loss of potential due to the inability of the surrounding material to maintain the initial concentration of the bulk fluid. That is, a concentration gradient is formed. Several processes may contribute to concentration polarization: slow diffusion in the gas phase in the electrode pores, solution/dissolution of reactants/products into/out of the electrolyte, or diffusion of reactants/products through the electrolyte to/from the electrochemical reaction site. At practical current densities, slow transport of reactants/products to/from the electrochemical reaction site is a major contributor to concentration polarization:

where iL is the limiting current (see Section 2.2.4).

Summing of Electrode Polarization: Activation and concentration polarization can exist at both the positive (cathode) and negative (anode) electrodes in fuel cells. The total polarization at these electrodes is the sum of ^act and ^conc, or

The effect of polarization is to shift the potential of the electrode (Eelectrode) to a new value


Velectrode Eelectrode + I 'H electrode I (2-6)

For the anode,

and for the cathode,

Vcathode Ecathode I 'H cathode I (2-8)

The net result of current flow in a fuel cell is to increase the anode potential and to decrease the cathode potential, thereby reducing the cell voltage. Figure 2-3 illustrates the contribution to polarization of the two half cells for a PAFC. The reference point (zero polarization) is hydrogen. These shapes of the polarization curves are typical of other types of fuel cells.



Current Density Polarization Curves

0 200 400 600 800

Current density (mA/cm2)

Figure 2-3 Contribution to Polarization of Anode and Cathode

0 200 400 600 800

Current density (mA/cm2)

Figure 2-3 Contribution to Polarization of Anode and Cathode

Summing of Cell Voltage: The cell voltage includes the contribution of the anode and cathode potentials and ohmic polarization:

When Equations (2-7) and (2-8) are substituted in Equation (2-9)

Vcell = Ecathode - I ^cathode I - (Eanode + I Vanode I ) - iR (2-1 0)

Vcell = AEe - | 'Hcathode I - I Vanode I - iR (2-1 1 )

where AEe = Ecathode - Eanode. Equation (2-11) shows that current flow in a fuel cell results in a decrease in the cell voltage because of losses by electrode and ohmic polarizations. The goal of fuel cell developers is to minimize the polarization so that Vcell approaches AEe. This goal is approached by modifications to fuel cell design (improvement in electrode structures, better electrocatalysts, more conductive electrolyte, thinner cell components, etc.). For a given cell design, it is possible to improve the cell performance by modifying the operating conditions (e.g., higher gas pressure, higher temperature, change in gas composition to lower the gas impurity concentration). However, for any fuel cell, compromises exist between achieving higher performance by operating at higher temperature or pressure and the problems associated with the stability/durability of cell components encountered at the more severe conditions.

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