One issue that impacts the lifetime of the fuel cell is the oxidation, or breakdown, of its central electrolyte membrane. The process leads to formation of holes in the membrane and can ultimately cause a chemical short circuit.

An engineering team at Washington University in St. Louis found a new way to better understand this. The idea ? To take a look at the rate at which oxidation occurs. Using fluorescence spectroscopy inside the fuel cell, they are able to probe the formation of the chemicals responsible for the oxidation, namely free radicals, during operation. The technique could be a game changer when it comes to understanding how the cells break down, and designing mitigation strategies that would extend the fuel cell’s lifetime.

The research, published this summer in the journal ChemSusChem, is the first to utilize an in situ approach to examine the fuel cell’s inner membranes. A fluorescent dye is incorporated and used as a marker to ascertain the rate at which damaging free radicals are generated during operation.

Once they were able to observe the fuel cell’s inner workings, the researchers noticed that the weaker the light emitted from the fuel cell membrane, the greater the breakdown occurring from within. The next step is to introduce antioxidant chemicals inside the fuel cell membranes, to see if they can reduce the rate at which these membranes break down.