Characterization of composite materials with microscopy techniques is an essential route to understanding their properties and degradation mechanisms, though the observation with a suitable type of microscopy is not always possible. In this work, we present proton exchange membrane fuel cell electrode interface structure dependence on ionomer content, systematically studied by Helium Ion Microscopy (HIM). A special focus was on acquiring high resolution images of the electrode structure and avoiding interface damage from irradiation and tedious sample preparation. HIM demonstrated its advantages in surface imaging, which is paramount in studies of the interface morphology of ionomer covered or absorbed catalyst structures in a combination with electrochemical characterization and accelerated stress test. The electrode porosity was found to depend on the ionomer content. The stressed electrodes demonstrated higher porosity in comparison to the unstressed ones on the condition of no external mechanical pressure. Moreover, formation of additional small grains was observed for the electrodes with the low ionomer content, indicating Pt redeposition through Ostwald ripening. Polymer nanofiber structures were found in the crack regions of the catalyst layer, which appear due to the internal stress originated from the solvent evaporation. These fibers have fairly uniform diameters of a few tens of nanometers, and their density increases with the increasing ionomer content in the electrodes. In the hot-pressed electrodes, we found more closed contact between the electrode components, reduced particle size, polymer coalescence and formation of nano-sized polymer fiber architecture between the particles.
Keywords: proton exchange membrane fuel cells (PEMFCs); Helium Ion Microscopy (HIM); interfaces; electrode structure; degradation mechanism