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Advanced Manufacturing Center wins $5.8 M grant on fuel cells from ONR

A team led by Arumugam Manthiram (Mechanical Engineering) with nine faculty at UT-Austin and one at Stanford University has won a Multi-disciplinary University Research Initiative (MURI) grant from the Office of Naval Research (ONR) for $5.8 million over 5 years ($3.5 million for three years and an optional $2.3 million for an additional two years).

Direct methanol fuel cells (DMFC) employing easily manageble liquid methanol fuel are appealing for a variety of Department of Defense needs and for consumer electronic devices. With a significantly higher energy density by both volume and weight compared to the currently used lithium ion batteries, DMFC has the potential, for example, to reduce significantly the weight of the power sources soldiers have to carry for long missions and portable electronic devices like laptops. More importantly, DMFC can provide uninterupted power continuously without requiring an electrical outlet for recharge, unlike the lithium ion batteries, as long as methanol fuel is fed.

However, the adoption of the DMFC technology has been hampered by several challenges such as high system cost and complexity, low operating voltage and efficiency, and durability issues. Several of these problems are directly linked to materials and manufacturing challenges. For example, the sluggish oxygen reduction kinetics at the cathode and methanol oxidation kinetics at the anode, poisoning of the Pt catalyst at the cathode by the methanol crossover from the anode to the cathode through the currently used Nafion membrane, and fuel waste due to methanol crossover lead to drastic performance losses. The conventional manufacturing involving machining of the carbon bipolar plates with reactant flow channels is slow and expensive.

The MURI team involving Allen Bard, Joseph Beaman, Christopher Bielawski, David Bourell, Venkat Ganesan, Lynn Loo, Arumugam Manthiram, Jeremy Meyers, and Kristin Wood at UT Austin and Friedrich Prinz at Stanford aims to overcome these problems through the development of new breakthrough materials and manufacturing processes with an in-depth understanding of the relevant science and engineering issues and to make the DMFC technology viable and affordable for portable applications. The project focuses on suppressing the methanol crossover problem through the use of low methanol permeability polymeric blend membranes or methanol impermeable ultra-thin ceramic membranes as well as innovative design and manufacturing of carbon bipolar plates with freeform fabrication methodologies. It also aims to reduce the DMFC system cost drastically by employing less expensive, more abundant non-platinum catalysts, inexpensive polymeric or ceramic membranes, and computer-aided selective laser sintering of carbon bipolar plates with unique, complex flow field designs. The team hopes to enhance the overall efficiency and power density of the DMFC system through both novel materials and unique system design and control approaches. The materials synthesis and processing, manufacturing methodologies, system and control designs, and operability optimization are aided by computational and theoretical modeling.

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