NIST’s New Imaging Facility Takes A Look Inside Fuel Cells

Due to new instrumentation at the Commerce Department’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), scientists can now conduct detailed surveillance on the behavior of water inside hydrogen fuel cells. With visualization powers 10 times better than those achieved previously, researchers can observe

Due to new instrumentation at the Commerce Department’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), scientists can now conduct detailed surveillance on the behavior of water inside hydrogen fuel cells.

With visualization powers 10 times better than those achieved previously, researchers can observe water production and removal in fuel cells under a range of simulated operating conditions.

In fuel cells, water is the by-product of the chemical process that uses electrons stripped from hydrogen molecules to generate electricity. With the newly commissioned Neutron Imaging Facility, water quantities smaller than 1 microgram are visible, and details as small as 0.02 millimeter can be discerned in images.

Located at NIST’s Center for Neutron Research, the research station is operated as a national user facility, open to scientists from industry, universities, and government agencies. It is jointly funded by NIST, the Department of Energy and General Motors.

As a non-regulatory agency of the Commerce Department’s Technology Administration, NIST promotes U.S. innovation and industrial competitiveness by advancing measurement science, standards and technology in ways that enhance economic security and improve our quality of life.

With a powerful, new Neutron Imaging Facility at the NIST, researchers can watch water being produced and removed inside fuel cells under a range of simulated operating conditions.

The new facility is located at the NIST Center for Neutron Research (NCNR), where NIST researchers first adapted the imaging technique so that it could be used to peer inside fuel cells. Initial proof-of-concept experiments were carried out in 1997.


The ability to look inside fuel cells is achieved with cone-shaped beams of neutrons. These neutrons can pass nearly unimpeded through the solid encasements, but they interact strongly with hydrogen. As a result, neutron beams are highly sensitive probes of water, since each molecule contains two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom.

The imaging facility also incorporates safety features and a comprehensive infrastructure to support advanced fuel-cell testing.

Additional Information on the instrument can be found at: http://www.physics.nist.gov/MajResFac/NIF.

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