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Michael Chen

SFU Student Undergraduate
Applied Sciences › Sustainable Energy Engineering
Co-operative Education › Local Co-op

Position Title
In this post, I will be going in-depth about my work experience as a Research Assistant for FCReL and the projects that I have been involved with. I am an SFU student studying in the Sustainable Energy Engineering program (SEE). My interests lie in electronics engineering and clean energy technologies, which has led me to accept this research assistant position working with Hydrogen fuel cells. To my readers, whether you’re here to gain insight into the field of academic research or to learn more about hydrogen fuel cells, here is an insider’s look at the exciting projects happening at FCReL.
Experience Details
Semester
Fall
Spring
Year
2022
2023
Skills
Application and Interview Tips
  • Understand the general working principle of Hydrogen Fuel Cells
  • Talk in-depth about your personal projects
Introduction + Preparation
FCReL Background

FCReL is a research group that focuses on the development of Hydrogen Fuel Cell materials. It is an academic research lab based in the School of Mechatronics Systems Engineering (MSE) and its headquarters are at SFU’s Surrey Campus, SRYE 3038. The primary mission at FCReL is to make significant contributions to the development of sustainable energy. The research group is led by Dr. Erik Kjeang and under his leadership, they have formed strong partnerships with various research facilities and industrial organizations both locally and internationally. Our local partners include SFU 4D Labs, Burnaby based Ballard Power Systems, Greenlight Innovation, and BC Hydro Subsidiary, PowerTech Labs. I have been assigned to work primarily on the Mechanical Study of Ionomer Membrane Durability for Hydrogen Fuel Cells (DY project), but there are many more projects going on in the lab. These projects include Ionomer Membrane Mechanical Fatigue Testing, Fuel Cell Catalyst Layer Fabrication, Fuel Cell Performance Testing, Fuel Cell Simulation and Modeling using Finite Element Techniques, Porous Material Characterization, and Hydrogen Storage.

Previous Experience

Before this work term, I had no previous experience working as a research assistant or in the industry. To showcase my interests and diverse skill set I completed personal projects in various fields of engineering. 

 

During my Experience
Day to Day

Within my project, I am analyzing the durability of polymer electrolyte membranes (PEMFC). PEMFCs are one of the most attractive technologies regarded to replace fossil fuels in transportation and stationary applications due to their high performance, efficiency, and zero toxic emissions. The ionomer membrane is the key component in PEMFCs. It is responsible for conducting reactive ions between the working electrodes while electronically isolating the electrodes from each other. During the fuel cell operation, the ionomer undergoes extensive chemical and mechanical stresses due to repeated shut-off, start-up, and rapid fluctuations in temperature and humidity. During my time working at FCReL, I had the opportunity to work with some of the most advanced processing and fabrication techniques. These include Dynamic Mechanical Analysis (DMA), Laser Cutting, and Simulation work.

DMA

Using the TA Instruments DMA 850, I measure the tensile stress of PEMFCs at different conditions of temperature and RH from ambient up to operating conditions. A specimen is taken from either the machine direction or transverse direction and is placed in the DMA instrument, then the sample is elongated at a user-defined strain rate until it fails or reaches the end of the capabilities of the instrument. I then calculate yield stress and Young’s Modulus of the sample using Excel. These values are used extensively in simulation work and performance testing on fuel cell test stations.

Laser Micromachining

This position at FCReL has given me the unique opportunity to work at SFU’s state-of-the-art processing and fabrication facility, 4D Labs. They are located on the 7000 level of the Technology & Science Complex Two (TASC 2) at the SFU Burnaby campus. At this facility, they host the IPG IX-280-ML laser workstation with an excimer UV laser that emits ultraviolet radiation in the 193nm wavelength. The tool has a maximum beam pulse energy of 9 MJ, and the beam dimensions are 2mm x 6mm (width x height).

This is ideal for micromachining because excimer lasers can produce a very small, precise pulse of UV at small wavelengths. They are excellent at removing material through ablation since it can precisely remove the material with little to no buildup of heat. Excimer lasers are also used in the process for manufacturing semiconductors with photon based optical lithography. I use this tool to cut the precise components necessary for the small-scale fuel cell testing assembly. These components included: Kapton with Teflon, catalyst-coated membrane (CCM), and gas diffusion layer (GDL). In my experience, ionomer material is very susceptible to burning so I appreciate how easy it is to adjust the laser power and processing parameters using the computer interface. During my first visit to the laser cutter, my CCM caught fire, and the entire sample was destroyed completely. To avoid burning my CCM a second time, I decreased the laser power and pulse width while increasing the processing speed.

Our research group pioneered the use of the small-scale assembly in combination with X-ray Computed Topography (XCT). It is an exceptional method to analyze cell degradation after cell conditioning and multiple operational cycles. Our cells are subjected to multiple accelerated stress tests (AST) until performance metrics drop below predetermined levels. Afterwards, the entire assembly including the graphite electrodes, Teflon gasket, and 3D-printed housing will be transferred into the XCT machine without being disassembled because disassembly would disturb the cell. Surprisingly, the XCT equipment we operate is very similar to medical CT technologies.

COMSOL Simulations

Along with DMA experiments, I have been tasked to create a material model for the ionomer membranes using finite element analysis. To complete this task, I build the model using COMSOL Multiphysics to simulate the properties of the membranes under similar environmental conditions. One of the special perks of working in this position is the state-of-the-art computing resources I have been provided with. These are in the form of commercial software licenses and supercomputer access at SFU Cedar. When I first started, I had no idea how to work with COMSOL or its capabilities. By the end of my work term, I have developed a baseline model considering the physics and material types for modelling the stress-strain curve of the ionomer by inputting material properties and specifying environmental conditions. Within this section, I have been examining different material models available in COMSOL. These include St Venant Kirchhoff, Gao, and Ogden. However, COMSOL’s built-in material models do not accurately model my ionomer material so, I ended up developing my own material model with the Three Networks Model Theory. Furthermore, to improve the computation time of my model I have implemented a user-defined mesh where the center portion of the membrane has larger triangles and the edges have smaller triangles. Doing so does not decrease the accuracy of the model since most deformations happen on the edge and the center can be approximated. 

Through completing my daily tasks, I developed an interest in laser technology, simulations, and mathematical modelling. I have taken the knowledge and experience that I have gained while working at FCReL to do some personal projects that include physics simulations and working with lasers. For example, I laser engraved a cat image into birch plywood.

Reflection & Tips
Reflection

Looking back at the past eight months, I have been incredibly lucky to learn how to operate unbelievably advanced instruments with minimal supervision. I often collaborated with my industrial partner and various graduate researchers, so my work was often used in multiple large projects. I have been able to learn new skills and write documentation for my work. These technical documents were forwarded to researchers working on a project for a different industrial partner and have helped get them started with COMSOL. Along the way, I have formed strong connections, learned numerous skills, and vastly expanded my knowledge in multiple fields which is extremely valuable for an engineer to have. I am very excited to take courses related to laser technology, computation modelling, and numerical methods to further expand my knowledge in these areas. My one regret is not having the courage and motivation to request additional work earlier in the term. I had hesitated until late October before asking to take on the task of laser micromachining.

The fuel cell research lab has always employed three Undergraduate Co-op students to work at each of its three main locations, Powertech, Ballard, and Surrey Campus. Reach out to Dr. Erik Kjeang if you’re interested in working at FCReL as a Post Doctoral student, Graduate Researcher or Co-op. 

I hope you’ve learned something new about Hydrogen Fuel Cells and the various fields of work that I have been part of.

Advice for Future Students

If you are curious about the various specialized research projects going on at FCReL check out our website at: https://www.sfu.ca/~ekjeang/ or our new site: www.sfu.ca/fuel-cell-research-lab when I finish building it.

Author

Michael Chen

SFU Student Undergraduate
Applied Sciences › Sustainable Energy Engineering
Co-operative Education › Local Co-op
visibility  327
May 15, 2023

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