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A research collaboration led by Carnegie Mellon University’s Shawn Litster will receive $3.2 million to develop ionomer-free electrodes for ultra-high power density fuel cells. The funding comes from the U.S. Department of Energy Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) as part of the ARPA-E OPEN 2021 program, which prioritizes funding technologies that support novel approaches to clean energy challenges.

Litster, a professor of mechanical engineering, and the research team aim to enable low-cost, high-efficiency hydrogen fuel cells for both light- and heavy-duty vehicles. They will look to disrupt the typical ionomer-based electrode technology that has played a key role in proton exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cells for over thirty years. While ionomers act as a conductor for ions, they simultaneously poison catalyst sites and obstruct oxygen transport throughout the cells.

Through functionalized mixed conductors and advanced ultra-high activity catalysts, the team will move proton conduction to the support surface of the electrode by removing the ionomer. This would give the electrode access to the ultra-high oxygen reduction reaction activity that platinum-alloy catalysts can provide. The result would create ultra-high-power density, revolutionizing PEM fuel cell technology.

With the support of ARPA-E, we’ll move ahead to redefine the limits of fuel cell capability.

Shawn Litster, Professor, Mechanical Engineering

Supported by rigorous economic analysis, the research and development efforts will work toward rapidly transitioning this disruptive electrode technology into a commercial product for deployment in clean transportation applications.

Collaborators on the project include researchers at Los Alamos National Lab, University of California Irvine, and General Motors. “I’m eager to work with a research team that brings together world-class capabilities,” Litster said. “With the support of ARPA-E, we’ll move ahead to redefine the limits of fuel cell capability.”

Litster directs the Laboratory for Transport Phenomena in Energy Systems at Carnegie Mellon University.