Faculty Advisor

Nikolaos K. Kazantzis

Faculty Advisor

Alfred A. Scala

Faculty Advisor

Ravindra Datta


Proton exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cells are at the forefront among different types of fuel cells and are likely to be important power sources in the near future. PEM is a key component of the PEM fuel cells. The objective of this research is to investigate the fundamental aspects of PEM in terms of thermodynamics and proton transport in the membrane, so that the new proton conducting materials may be developed based on the detailed understanding. Since the proton conductivity increases dramatically with the amount of water in PEM, it is important to maintain a high humidification during the fuel cell operation. Therefore, the water uptake characteristics of the membrane are very important in developing fuel cell systems. Thermodynamic models are developed to describe sorption in proton-exchange membranes (PEMs), which can predict the complete isotherm as well as provide a plausible explanation for the long unresolved phenomenon termed Schroeder¡¯s paradox, namely the difference between the amounts sorbed from a liquid solvent versus from its saturated vapor. The sorption isotherm is a result of equilibrium established in the polymer-solvent system when the swelling pressure due to the uptake of solvent is balanced by the surface and elastic deformation pressures that restrain further stretching of the polymer network. The transport of protons in PEMs is intriguing. It requires knowledge of the PEM structure, water sorption thermodynamics in PEM, proton distribution in PEM, interactions between the protons and PEM, and proton transport in aqueous solution. Even proton conduction in water is anomalous that has received considerable attention for over a century because of its paramount importance in chemical, biological, and electrochemical systems. A pore transport model is proposed to describe proton diffusion at various hydration levels within Nafion¢ÃƒÂ§ by incorporating structural effect upon water uptake and various proton transport mechanisms, namely proton hopping on pore surface, Grotthuss diffusion in pore bulk, and ordinary mass diffusion of hydronium ions. A comprehensive random walk basis that relates the molecular details of proton transfer to the continuum diffusion coefficients has been applied to provide the transport details in the molecular scale within the pores of PEM. The proton conductivity in contact with water vapor is accurately predicted as a function of relative humidity without any fitted parameters. This theoretical model is quite insightful and provides design variables for developing high proton conducting PEMs. The proton transport model has been extended to the nanocomposite membranes being designed for higher temperature operation which are prepared via modification of polymer (host membrane) by the incorporation of inorganics such as SiO2 and ZrO2. The operation of fuel cells at high temperature provides many advantages, especially for CO poisoning. A proton transport model is proposed to describe proton diffusion in nanocomposite Nafion¢ÃƒÂ§/(ZrO2/SO42-) membranes. This model adequately accounts for the acidity, surface acid density, particle size, and the amount of loading of the inorganics. The higher proton conductivity of the composite membrane compared with that of Nafion is observed experimentally and also predicted by the model. Finally, some applications of PEM fuel cells are considered including direct methanol fuel cells, palladium barrier anode, and water electrolysis in regenerative fuel cells.


Worcester Polytechnic Institute

Degree Name



Chemical Engineering

Project Type


Date Accepted





Proton-exchange membranes, Fuel Cell, Thermodynamics, Proton Transport, Proton transfer reactions, Fuel cells, Proton exchange membranes