Molecular-Level Investigation of Critical Gap Size between Catalyst Particles and Electrolyte in Hydrogen Proton Exchange Membrane Fuel Cells

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Molecular dynamics simulations have been performed to study the structure and transport at the electrode/electrolyte interface in hydrogen-based proton exchange membrane fuel cells. We examine the wetting of catalyst surfaces that are not immediately adjacent to a Nafion membrane, but rather are separated from the membrane by a hydrophobic gap of carbon support surface (graphite). A mixture of Nafion, water and hydronium ions is able to wet small gaps (7.4 Å) of graphite and reach the catalyst surface, providing a path for proton transport from the catalyst to the membrane. However, for gaps of 14.8 Å, we observe no wetting of the graphite or the catalyst surface. Using a coarse-grained model, we found that the presence of a graphite gap of 7.4 Å width slowed down the transport of water by at least an order of magnitude relative to a system with no gap. The implication is that catalyst particles that are not within nominally 1 nm of either the proton exchange membrane or recast ionomer in the electrode leading to the membrane do not possess a path for efficient proton transport to the membrane and consequently do not contribute significantly to power production in the fuel cell.

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