Fuel Cell Testing

The testing of fuel cells for commercial and military applications was instigated at the Hawaii Natural Energy Institute (HNEI) of the University of Hawaii at Manoa through a partnership between HNEI and the Naval Research Laboratory, funded through an Office of Naval Research (ONR) initiative. Under this initiative, HNEI has partnered with the Hawaiian Electric Company, the state's largest electric utility, and UTC Fuel Cells, one of the world's leading manufacturers of fuel cells, to develop what was initially known as the Hawaii Fuel Cell Test Facility, which began operations in 2003. Subsequently, this facility benefited from continued funding from ONR and additional support from the US Department of Energy and other private sources. In 2012, to reflect this expanding partnership and the growing capabilities of the fuel cell test facility, it was renamed as the Hawaii Sustainable Energy Research Facility or HiSERF.  For further details concerning the evolution of this facility, see the HiSERF announcement.

Overview of the Hawaii Fuel Cell Test Facility
Overview of research facility
Test stand with fuel cell installed
Test stand with fuel cell installed

Located on HECO property in downtown Honolulu, this 4,000 sq ft facility was dedicated in April 2003. The test facility currently houses eleven test stands, eight for up to 100 cm2 single cells and three with the capability to handle full size (up to 600 cm2) single cells or small stacks (up to 5 kW). One of the smaller test stations was designed and built for high speed hardware-in-loop (HiL) testing to characterize dynamic performance of small fuel cell systems for vehicle applications. Furthermore, the HiSERF has a host of supporting equipment including on-site hydrogen generation and storage, extensive safety systems, and on-line high resolution gas analysis. Capabilities allow long-term life testing and cell performance characterization over a wide range of operating conditions, including hydrogen or reformate fuel, air or oxygen, and temperatures up to 100 °C. The test stands employ active thermal and water management systems allowing precise control and characterization of these functions. Future work is anticipated to encompass higher cell operating temperatures, continued membrane and stack testing, testing of catalysts and bipolar plates, and the impact of a variety of contaminants on cell performance. The HiSERF's mission is to accelerate acceptance and deployment of fuel cells for commercial and military applications. The Institute is continuing to seek other commercial and public sector partners to participate in this program.

Details of test stand components
Details of test stand components

Current Fuel Cell Testing Activities

At this time, the HiSERF team is active in several fuel cell projects:

1. Airborne contaminants testing and analysis project with the US Department of Energy (DOE)

  • Establishment of impurity testing capabilities
  • Development of testing, analysis and diagnostics of contaminant experiments
  • Studies of the impact of airborne contaminants on fuel cell performance
  • Impact of mixed contaminant
  • Mitigation of impact of airborne contaminants
  • See the Airborne Contaminants and Fuel Cell Performance section of our website for details

2. System contaminants testing and analysis project with DOE’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory

  • Modifications of fuel cell testing station to meet project needs, including installation of air inlet liquid injection system and adjustments to achieve effective response to dynamic test changes
  • Extensive screening of possible contaminants from material corrosion or leaching from within the fuel cell system
  • Property measurements during and after durability testing
  • Test data used to develop semi-empirical and mathematical models to predict impact of material stability on fuel cell performance
  • See the Fuel Cell Sytem Contaminant Testing section of our website for details

3. Component, cell, and stack testing plus test stands/infrastructure upgrade project with the Office of Naval Research

  • Fuel or oxidant recycling to achieve the high utilization required for autonomous vehicle operations, alternate fueling systems, etc.
  • Upgrades to existing analysis tools (e.g., gas analysis, effluent water analysis, and segmented cell system)
  • Development of an open structure test stand that will allow accurate measurement and testing of various fuel cell systems (e.g., PEM, Alkaline, SOFC) and system components (e.g., blowers, fuel storage system) of interest in both steady-state and dynamic mode
  • Development of empirical models for explaining performance of a fuel cell when exposed to various contaminants and for identifying possible mitigation measures to allow for vehicle operation in harsh environments that are of interest to the Navy

4. Use of a fuel cell system for helium recovery as required for rocket test systems -- a project with NASA via Sierra Lobo, Inc.

  • Testing the feasibility of using a PEM fuel cell system (PEMFCS) to separate gaseous helium from gaseous hydrogen (helium is a scarce purge gas used in rocket test programs and it becomes contaminated with hydrogen during such testing)
  • Development of such a PEMFCS to be more efficient and less costly than current separation processes
  • The primary goal is to yield a separated stream of gas that has > 99.995% pure gaseous helium
  • See the Helium Recovery from Rocket Test Systems section of our website for details

HiSERF Features

  • Eleven fuel cell testing stations on site
  • Capability for individual fuel cell testing and stack testing up to 5 kW
  • Capacity for additional test stands
  • Fuel options include hydrogen and reformate
  • Air and oxygen operation available with built-in dew point humidifiers
  • On-site hydrogen production (Proton Energy Systems' Hogen 6M) and storage
  • On-line high resolution gas analysis
  • Computerized process control and data acquisition with secure data lines
  • Extensive safety features, including gas, heat and exhaust-flow sensing
Fuel cell test assembly details
Fuel cell test assembly details

Planned Capabilities

  • Extended temperature range to accommodate high temperature membrane testing
  • Component evaluation: including catalysts, membranes and bipolar plates

Future work will also include the testing of complete fuel cell systems, with emphasis on the robustness of such systems against mechanical failure, resistance to catalyst degradation, and other performance loss. Within the arena of fuel cell systems work, both modeling and actual hardware efforts will be involved. Modeling work would include a variety of simulation activities. Additional hardware for the HiSERF will be used to continue the emphasis on operation in harsh and contaminated environments.

Related programs at HNEI are sustained via a thrust called the Hawaii Hydrogen Partnerships. This element aims to facilitate and support the deployment and acceptance of fuel cell systems and renewable energy technologies. As a prime example, the State of Hawaii, through its Department of Business, Economic Development, and Tourism (DBEDT), is developing a Hawaii Hydrogen Power Park in the islands, based on a U.S. Department of Energy award. HNEI is the implementing partner, and is working with DBEDT and various industrial partners to test the combination of hydrogen production and storage, fuel cells, and renewable energy in a real-world demonstration of these technologies.

Funding of fuel cell related activities is currently coming from one main source: the Asia Pacific Research Initiative for Sustainable Energy Systems (APRISES), a multimillion-dollar federal appropriation through the U.S. Department of Defense's Office of Naval Research. Activities are being directed to the development and testing of fuel cells and fuel cell systems, research and development of alternative fuels (including sea-bed methane hydrates, synthetic fuels, and hydrogen), development and testing of features for ocean and geothermal energy, and research elements for microgrid/grid integration and energy efficiency. Significant earlier efforts were funded via the Hawai‘i Energy and Environmental Technologies Initiative (HEET), also through the Office of Naval Research

To return and view the five components of HNEI's overall fuel cell program, click here.

For further information on fuel cell testing activities contact: Richard E. Rocheleau, HNEI Director, or Jean St.-Pierre, HNEI Researcher.

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