Comprehensive investigation of novel pore-graded gas diffusion layers for high-performance and cost-effective proton exchange membrane electrolyzers
Hydrogen produced by water electrolysis is a promising storage medium for renewable energy. Reducing the capital cost of proton exchange membrane (PEM) electrolyzers without losing efficiency is one of its most pressing challenges. Gas diffusion layers (GDL), such as felts, foams, meshes and sintered plates, are key stack components, but these are either inefficient or expensive. This study presents a new type of GDL produced via vacuum plasma spraying (VPS), which offers a large potential for cost reduction. With this technology, it is possible to introduce a gradient in the pore-size distribution along the thickness of the GDL by varying the plasma parameters and titanium powder particle sizes. This feature was confirmed by cross-section scanning electron microscopy (SEM). X-ray computed tomography (CT) and mercury intrusion porosimetry allowed determining the porosity, pore radii distribution, and pore entry distribution. Pore radii of ca. 10 μm could be achieved in the layers of the GDL close to the bipolar plate, while those in contact with the electrodes were in the range of 5 μm. The thermally sprayed Ti-GDLs allowed achieving PEM electrolyzer performances comparable to those of the state-of-the-art sintered plates and far superior than those of meshes. Moreover, a numerical model showed that the reduced capillary pressure and tortuosity eliminates mass transport limitations at 2 A cm−2. The results presented herein demonstrate a promising solution to reduce the cost of one of the most expensive components of the stack.