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Numerical investigation of the structure effects on water transportation in PEMFC gas diffusion layers using X-ray tomography based Lattice Boltzmann method

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posted on 12.01.2015, 09:34 authored by Fontip Jinuntuya
The excessive presence of liquid water in a gas diffusion layer (GDL) hinders the access of reactant gases to the active sites of the catalyst layer leading to decreased performance of a polymer electrolyte membrane fuel cell (PEMFC). Therefore, GDLs are usually treated with a hydrophobic agent to render their fibres more hydrophobic in order to facilitate gas transport and water removal. Numerous studies have been conducted to investigate water transport in PEMFCs in recent years; however, the behaviour of liquid water in a GDL at a pore-level is poorly understood. Macroscopic models fail to incorporate the influence of the structural morphology of GDLs on liquid water transport behaviour. Experimental methods are not conducive towards a good understanding at a microscopic level because of the diminutive size of the GDLs porous structure. Alternatively, the Lattice Boltzmann (LB) method has gathered interest as it is found to be particularly useful in fluid flow simulations in porous media due to its capability to incorporate the complex boundaries of actual GDL structures. To date, most studies on fluid transport in GDLs integrated artificial structures generated by stochastic simulation techniques to the LB models. The stochastic-based model, however, does not represent closely the microscopic features of the actual GDL as manufactured. In addition, comparison of liquid water transport behaviour in different GDL structures using the LB method is rare since only a single GDL material has been utilised in most of those studies. This thesis aims to develop our understanding of liquid water transport behaviour in GDLs with morphologically different structures under varying wettability conditions based on the LB method and the X-ray computed tomography (XCT) technique. GDLs with paper and felt structures were reconstructed into 3D digital volumetric models via the XCT process. The digital models were then incorporated into a LB solver to model water saturation distribution through the GDL domains. The GDL wettability was also altered so that the effect on liquid water behaviour in the GDL could be examined. This project is divided into three main sections. In the sensitivity analysis, the effect of image resolution on gas permeability through the X-ray reconstructed GDL was carried out using a single-phase LB model. It was found that the resolution variation could significantly affect the resulting gas permeability in both principal and off-principal directions, as well as computational time. An optimum resolution, however, exists at 2.72 µm/pixel, which consumed 400 times less computational time with less than 8% difference in the resulting permeability compared to the base resolution. This study also served as a guideline for selecting a resolution for generating the XCT images of the GDLs which were utilised in the following studies. In the structure analysis, the structures of the paper and felt GDLs were generated using the XCT and the key properties of each GDL, including thickness, porosity, permeability and tortuosity, were characterised. The thickness and the through-plane porosity distributions of each GDL were examined based on the tomography images. The resulting local through-plane porosity distributions were then used to calculate through-plane permeability and tortuosity distributions using an analytical model available in the literature. This study revealed the heterogeneity of the GDLs and how the heterogeneous nature of the GDL structures affects others properties of the GDLs. In this study, the absolute through-plane permeability and tortuosity of the X-ray-reconstructed GDL samples were also characterised using the single-phase LB model. The results from the two models were then compared and validated against data in the literature. In the water transport analysis, the two-phase LB model was employed to examine the effects of GDL structures on the behaviour of liquid water in the GDLs, including invasion patterns, saturation distribution and breakthrough behaviour under varying GDL wettability conditions. It was found that wettability was responsible for invasion patterns and water saturation levels whilst the GDL structure was mostly responsible for breakthrough occurrence and saturation distribution. It was observed that water travelled with stable displacement saturating all pores in hydrophilic GDLs, while it travelled with capillary fingering causing decreased saturation in hydrophobic GDLs, about 50% in the highly hydrophobic cases. The GDL structure was found to play a key role in breakthrough behaviour in the hydrophilic GDL as it was seen that the through-plane fibres in the felt structure and the through-plane binders in the paper structure encouraged water removal from the GDL in the thickness direction. Conversely, the GDL structure was found to have negligible influence on breakthrough in the hydrophobic GDL. Each GDL structure, however, contributed to a distinct difference in water distribution in the GDL with hydrophobic wettability. The work presented in this thesis contributes to the understanding of liquid water transport behaviour in the GDLs under the combined effects of the GDL structures and wettability conditions, which is essential for the development of effective PEMFC water management and the design of future GDL materials.


The Royal Thai Government



  • Aeronautical, Automotive, Chemical and Materials Engineering


  • Aeronautical and Automotive Engineering


© Fontip Jinuntuya

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This work is made available according to the conditions of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0) licence. Full details of this licence are available at:

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A Doctoral Thesis. Submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the award of Doctor of Philosophy of Loughborough University.

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