Development of a conducting multiphase polymer composite for fuel cell bipolar plate

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Alo, Oluwaseun Ayotunde
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Vaal University of Technology
On account of their lightweight, low-cost, corrosion resistance, and good formability, conductive polymer composites (CPCs) are promising for the production bipolar plate (BP) for polymer electrolyte membrane fuel cell (PEMFC). However, a high conductive filler loading is needed to impart the required level of electrical conductivity to the insulating polymer matrix and as a consequence, the toughness of the plate deteriorates considerably. By using immiscible blend of polymers that have complementary hardness and ductility as matrix, with conducting multi-fillers of different morphologies, it is possible to optimize the matrix strength characteristics and favour the formation of conducting network to produce CPC meeting BP performance standards. Of course, a lot will depend on the formulation of the most favourable composition and production variables. In this regard, polypropylene-epoxy and polyethylene-epoxy blends, filled with zero- and two-dimensional carbon forms – graphite, carbon black (CB), and graphene (Gr) – were investigated over an extensive range of compositions and compression moulding pressures, in this study. Several compounding runs (using melt mixing), at different stages, followed by compression molding, were done. The goal is to obtain combination of composite formulation and processing conditions that will produce the most promising combination of properties for BP application. In the first stage of the investigations, by using thermogravimetric analysis, two-stage decomposition behavior of PP-epoxy and PE-epoxy blends was revealed, which confirms the immiscibility of PP and PE with epoxy resin. Scanning electron microscope (SEM) micrographs of the PP-epoxy and PE-epoxy blends revealed a co-continuous structure, which can be attributed to the close-to-symmetric composition of the blend and compatibilizers added. Preferential localization of synthetic graphite (SG), CB, and Gr in the polymer blends was also revealed by the SEM micrographs. This confirms the fact that CPCs based on PP-epoxy and PE-epoxy blends can be explored further. PP-epoxy and PE-epoxy blends filled with only SG, 30 – 80 wt %, were produced and characterized for their electrical conductivity and flexural properties. In-plane electrical conductivity ranged from 12.09 to 68.03 Scm-1 for PP-epoxy/SG and 11.68 to 72.96 Scm-1 for PE-epoxy/SG composites produced. These are higher than values reported for several single matrix polymer composites at similar filler loadings. With reference to the United States Department of Energy performance targets for BPs, PE-epoxy/SG composites performed better in terms of electrical conductivity, while PP-epoxy/SG composites exhibited better flexural properties. Thereafter, using SG and CB double filler, PE-epoxy/SG/CB composites performed better than PP-epoxy/SG/CB composites in terms of electrical conductivity, while PP-epoxy/SG/CB composites exhibited superior flexural properties than the PE-epoxy/SG/CB composites at similar filler loadings. However, with respect to the DOE targets, composites based on PP-epoxy blend exhibited a more promising combination of electrical conductivity and flexural properties than PE-epoxy blend matrix. PP-epoxy filled with SG/CB was studied further, by using graphene (Gr) as second minor filler. In-plane and through plane electrical conductivities as well as thermal conductivity and thermal diffusivity of the PP-epoxy/SG/CB/Gr composites increased as total filler content was increased from 65 to 85 wt%. It implies that more conductive networks between filler particles were formed. Also, flexural strength, flexural modulus, and impact strength decreased as the total filler content increased from 65 to 85 wt%. The reduced flexural properties could be due to increased agglomeration of CB and Gr, and poor filler wetting at higher filler loadings and low matrix material, which leads to the formation of microvoids and a reduction of the load bearing capacity of composites. With respect to the DOE targets, PP-EP/SG/CB/Gr composite with 80 wt% (i.e., PP/EP/73G/6.2CB/0.8Gr) filler has the best combination of properties. Further improvement in properties of the PP-EP/SG/CB/Gr composite with 80 wt% filler was achieved by molding at higher pressures. As molding pressure was increased from 4.35 to 13.05 MPa, in-plane electrical conductivity increased from 116.31 to 144.99 Scm-1, while flexural strength increased from 29.62 to 42.57 MPa, satisfying the performance requirement targets for bipolar plates.
D. Tech. (Department of Mechanical Engineering, Faculty of Engineering and Technology), Vaal University of Technology.
Conducive polymer composites, Polymer electrolyte membrane fuel cells, Bipolar plates, Multi filler