Flow Simulation with CFD-ACE+ improves the robustness of Fuel Cell Design

Electronics & Consumer Goods, Energy & Power

Simulation has helped us significantly increase the efficiency and life of proton exchange membrane fuel cells (PEMFCs) by reducing variations in flow between the individual cells, and within individual cells.

Sanjiv Kumar
Ballard Power Systems,Burnaby, British Columba



Fuel cells represent one of the most important automotive design challenges of the 21st century because of their potential to eliminate dependence on fossil fuel sources and to eliminate carbon emissions that are theorized to be responsible for global warming. Yet fuel cells provide enormous design challenges, primarily increasing their power and robustness while reducing their cost to levels that will make them competitive with internal combustion engines. Flow simulation is playing a major role in this process by enabling engineers to understand and visualize the complex flow within with the fuel cell which plays a critical role in its performance.

Ballard Power Systems, Burnaby, British Columbia, is a leader in the design, development and manufacture of PEMFCs. PEMFC is considered the most promising fuel cell technology for automobiles because of their high power density. Today, approximately 130 Ballard-powered fuel cell vehicles have accumulated more than 3.9 million kilometers on roads around the world, and have delivered more than 4.5 people safely to their destinations.

Ballard’s PEMFCs use a complex design with a stack consisting of multiple cell rows, each cell row having multiple cell plates, and each cell plate having many channels. The extreme variation in scale, which is a key factor in the power density of the device, creates major design challenges. One of the key design goals is to provide a uniform flow distribution in the approximately 20 kilometers of total flow circuits in a stack because the stack performance is often limited by the unit cell with the worst performance.

Ballard uses ESI CFD-ACE+ software including its PEMFC module to perform comprehensive 3D simulations of fuel cells. The full stack model is too large to run as one job so Ballard has created several different models that the company uses to optimize fuel cell performance at different scales.

Optimizing manifold and headers

One key task is to design the manifold to balance mass flow between all cell rows and optimize pressure drops. This required a large-scale model that did not need to account for the details of the flow in the individual cells. First, manifold segments were optimized for pressure drop through CFD simulation. After optimizing the bends, CFD was used to analyze the complete manifold and ensure that mass flow between all cell rows is equally distributed.

The next step in the flow path is the headers which distribute gases to the individual cells. Optimizing the headers required a model that simplifies each cell flow field to an equivalent flow resistance to represent pressure drop in active cells. The ESI CFD-ACE+ model of the header showed that flow exiting the cells hit the outside wall of the header and formed two vortices. Flow separated towards the dead end of the inlet header leading to poor flow distribution for the last cells. Based on these insights, the header geometry in the model was changed several times and then the model was re-run until the flow field in the header was substantially improved.

Optimizing cell plate geometry

The fuel cell must be modeled at even a smaller scale in order to optimize the cell plate geometry. A structured grid block with about 150,000 cells was created by extruding a 2D face mesh consisting of 700 quad cells along the length of a 200-node channel. The model was verified by comparing simulation predictions with experimental results for key metrics including cell voltage vs. current density, plate current distribution, MEA water content, coolant temperature rise, and sensitivity to operating conditions and material properties. The simulations closely matched the experiments.

After verifying the model, Ballard analysts varied geometric parameters that affect transport including channel cross-section area, channel hydraulic diameter, channel length, and ratio of channel width to land area. They gained many insights such as that predicted cell performance increases with increasing gas channel width and channel pitch, which indicates that coupled transport in the gas diffusion layer is dictated by electrical conduction.

CFD has become tool of first choice

The net result was a substantial improvement in the robustness of our fuel cells designs, Kumar concluded. We are continuing to improve our modeling techniques in order to increase the accuracy of our models and reduce computation time. Other potential improvements include filament based models to communicate with porous media and using simple path length lookup tables to capture the shape of the channels. As a result of these advancements, CFD has become the tool of first choice for fuel cell designers at Ballard.


About Ballard

Ballard Power Systems Inc. is a world leader in the development, manufacture, sale and servicing of hydrogen fuel cell power systems. Our products and services are used today in various markets, from heavy duty motive power to materials handling, backup power, UAV, marine and rail applications as well as support of other products required through our technology services contracts. Ballard’s technology offers a wide range of benefits within each of these markets, including lowering costs of energy use, longer operating lifetimes and positive environmental impacts. We are working to accelerate fuel cell technology adoption, committed to sustainable mobility and clean air for everyone.

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