The same tomographic imaging technique that provides doctors and surgeons with vital views inside their patients is now being adapted to improve the performance of hydrogen fuel cells. Researchers at Simon Fraser University are working with Burnaby-based Ballard Power Systems to apply a new tool for testing and characterizing these devices.

The four-year, $6.5 million project employs Nano X-ray Computed Imaging Tomography (NXCT) to carry out sophisticated scans of fuel cell microstructures. More specifically, this approach will make it possible to monitor the degradation of these components, so that the causes of this process can be identified and point the way to design changes that could minimize or prevent it.

The facility is expected to develop and advance the technology leading up to the next generation of Ballard’s fuel cell products, helping the firm meet goals of extended fuel cell life and higher efficiency. “This will be an unprecedented, world-class testing facility dedicated entirely to this project over the next four years,” says principal investigator Erik Kjeang, an assistant professor in SFU’s School of Mechatronic Systems Engineering. “Beyond its capabilities, that’s a strength in itself,” Kjeang says.

Kjeang remains active in another project with Ballard to enhance the durability of heavy-duty fuel cells that power city buses. By studying the degradation of fuel cells that are being used in actual transit driving conditions, the resulting simulations make it possible for users to establish accurate protocols for the testing and maintenance of this equipment.

Kjeang’s projects are substantially supported by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) and Automotive Partnership Canada (APC), which draws together five federal research and granting agencies for industry-driven research in the vehicle manufacturing sector. “Thanks to the APC program, and the support NSERC has provided over the years, I have been able to both explore the fundamentals of fuel cell technology and to successfully work with companies that are making globally leading advances in green automotive technology,” says Kjeang. 
“It’s a unique opportunity,” adds Ballard’s research manager Shanna Knights, “to have dedicated access to highly specialized­ equipment and access to university experts who are focused on Ballard’s needs.”