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Towards a self-healing hydrogen-powered fuel-cell: Fully funded PhD studentship in Engineering Department at Lancaster University, funded by the Leverhulme Centre for Material Social Futures Research and Engineering Department.

Department of Engineering

, , Saturday, August 01, 2020 Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)

About the Project

The Leverhulme PhD Training Centre for Material Social Futures brings together concepts and approaches from across the disciplines to help produce futures that people want and the world needs. The doctoral training is a major new strategic collaborative partnership between the vibrant research community of the University’s Institute for Social Futures ( and the Materials Science Institute ( Based in the Engineering Department, you will undertake your PhD research alongside PhDs researching the materials science aspects of this topic. These and other PhDs will all be members of and participants in a multi-stranded PhD research training programme in Material Social Futures.

Hydrogen powered polymer electrolyte membrane fuel cells (PEMFC) are energy efficient and environmentally friendly alternatives to conventional energy conversion systems in many emerging applications. However, there is an increasing need to improve their performance and durability. The underpinning polymer electrolyte membrane, which is sandwiched between the anode and the cathode, allows movements of cations (protons) while blocking the movement of electrons and gas. The water uptake and retention properties of the membrane plays a pivotal role in the operational performance of PEMFC. For example, where the membrane is insufficiently hydrated, power output is reduced potentially leading to eventual material damage. On the other hand, where there is too much hydration, flooding results leading to a reduced output and again potential damage to the cell. The membrane is also susceptible to wear and tear under normal operations, which results in cracks and holes, thus allowing hydrogen and oxygen to come into direct contact resulting in cell failure. These defects are almost impossible to detect and repair during cell operation, with the only viable solution being to replace the entire membrane electrode assembly, which is prohibitively expensive. This issue is compounded by cells operating in large series of connected stacks such that when one cell fails, the whole stack fails. Inspired by the natural process of recovery common to all living organisms, self-healing membranes have been proposed to perform spot repairs autonomously. These membranes can perform self-repair either by mimicking mechanically triggered chemistry or by the storage and release of liquid reagents. Demonstrations using such membranes on methanol fuel cells have already been made, though due to the low output power, such cells are only expected to find applications in consumer goods market such as mobile phones and laptops. Opportunities therefore loom to realise a hydrogen PEMFC using self-healing membrane, which will be able to produce higher output power, sufficient for applications such as electric vehicles, with a sustained working life and safety profile.

The Project:
Your project will realise a hydrogen-based fuel cell using self-healing membrane techniques such as reversible hydrogen bonding. As the membrane water uptake and retention properties will significantly affect the operational performance of a PEMFC, you will also use state-of-the-art techniques to characterise the water retention properties of the membranes for comparisons against existing polymer-based membranes. This will be an innovative circular solution to future clean energy.
To improve the social acceptability and societal readiness of any innovation, as well as support general public understanding of hydrogen based energy sources in the UK, your project will frame the fuel cell within in the wider context of social practicability of sustainability transformations and the ever-changing energy landscape. This can enable hydrogen as the bulk energy vector in future smart energy systems.

Candidates must have qualifications in physical sciences/engineering, especially in Chemical or Mechanical Engineering, Chemistry, Physics or Materials Science, with demonstrated interests in clean and sustainable energy and in the social, economic and environmental impacts of new technologies. An interest in using social theory and social science methods is required.

Deadline and closing date: 1st August 2020

Start: 1st October 2020

Informal queries:
We very much welcome informal queries about this opportunity, which should be directed to Dr Hungyen Lin (), Dr Richard Dawson () and Prof Monika Büscher ()

Application Details
Interested candidates should please send a covering letter (not exceeding 2 pages of A4) to Dr Hungyen Lin () outlining your suitability for a PhD and explaining how you would approach the research and a full CV, including two named referees (one of whom should be your most recent academic tutor/supervisor).

Funding Notes

• Full payment of Home/EU tuition fees (at the standard RCUK rate) for 3.5 years;
• A maintenance stipend (£15,009 pa subject to annual inflation increments);
• It is available to all UK / EU citizens;
• Access to a Research Training Support Grant (RTSG) for reimbursement of research-related expenses;
• Access to a range of training and development provided by the Material Social Futures PhD Programme, the Department of Sociology, the Engineering Department, the Faculty of Science and Technology, the Institute for Social Futures and Lancaster University;
• Internships in the second and/or third year of training.

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