Portable devices rely on battery systems that contribute largely to the overall device form factor and delay portability due to recharging. Membraneless microfluidic fuel cells are considered as the next generation of portable power sources for their compatibility with higher energy density reactants. Microfluidic fuel cells are potentially cost effective and robust because they use low Reynolds number flow to maintain fuel and oxidant separation instead of ion exchange membranes. However, membraneless fuel cells suffer from poor efficiency due to poor mass transport and Ohmic losses. Current microfluidic fuel cell designs suffer from reactant cross-diffusion and thick boundary layers at the electrode surfaces, which result in a compromise between the cell’s power output and fuel utilization.
This dissertation presents novel flow field architectures aimed at alleviating the mass transport limitations. The first architecture provides a reactant interface where the reactant diffusive concentration gradients are aligned with the bulk flow, mitigating reactant mixing through diffusion and thus crossover. This cell also uses porous electro-catalysts to improve electrode mass transport which results in higher extraction of reactant energy. The second architecture uses porous electrodes and an inert conductive electrolyte stream between the reactants to enhance the interfacial electrical conductivity and maintain complete reactant separation. This design is stacked hydrodynamically and electrically, analogous to membrane based systems, providing increased reactant utilization and power. These fuel cell architectures decouple the fuel cell’s power output from its fuel utilization.

The fuel cells are tested over a wide range of conditions including variation of the loads, reactant concentrations, background electrolytes, flow rates, and fuel cell geometries. These experiments show that increasing the fuel cell power output is accomplished by increasing reactant flow rates, electrolyte conductivity, and ionic exchange areas, and by decreasing the spacing between the electrodes. The experimental and theoretical observations presented in this dissertation will aid in the future design and commercialization of a new portable power source, which has the desired attributes of high power output per weight and volume and instant rechargeability.

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