Mechanism for degradation of nafion in PEM fuel cells from quantum mechanics calculations

Ted H. Yu, Yao Sha, Wei-Guang Liu, Boris V. Merinov, Pezhman Shirvanian, William A. Goddard

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

130 Scopus citations


We report results of quantum mechanics (QM) mechanistic studies of Nafion membrane degradation in a polymer electrolyte membrane (PEM) fuel cell. Experiments suggest that Nafion degradation is caused by generation of trace radical species (such as OH-, H-) only when in the presence of H2, O2, and Pt. We use density functional theory (DFT) to construct the potential energy surfaces for various plausible reactions involving intermediates that might be formed when Nafion is exposed to H2 (or H+) and O2 in the presence of the Pt catalyst. We find a barrier of 0.53 eV for OH radical formation from HOOH chemisorbed on Pt(111) and of 0.76 eV from chemisorbed OOHad, suggesting that OH might be present during the ORR, particularly when the fuel cell is turned on and off. Based on the QM, we propose two chemical mechanisms for OH radical attack on the Nafion polymer: (1) OH attack on the S-C bond to form H2SO4 plus a carbon radical (barrier: 0.96 eV) followed by decomposition of the carbon radical to form an epoxide (barrier: 1.40 eV). (2) OH attack on H2 crossover gas to form hydrogen radical (barrier: 0.04 eV), which subsequently attacks a C-F bond to form HF plus carbon radicals (barrier as low as 1.00 eV). This carbon radical can then decompose to form a ketone plus a carbon radical with a barrier of 0.86 eV. The products (HF, OCF2, SCF2) of these proposed mechanisms have all been observed by F NMR in the fuel cell exit gases along with the decrease in pH expected from our mechanism.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)19857-19863
Number of pages7
JournalJournal of the American Chemical Society
Issue number49
StatePublished - Dec 14 2011


Dive into the research topics of 'Mechanism for degradation of nafion in PEM fuel cells from quantum mechanics calculations'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this