Characterisation of proton exchange membranes in an H₂SO₄ environment
In light of the world‟s growing demand for energy that is environmentally friendly and sustainable, energy sources such as hydrogen have been considered potential contenders. Hydrogen, which can be used for energy storage, can be produced efficiently by the membrane based Hybrid Sulfur (HyS) thermo-chemical process consisting of a decomposition and an electrolysis step. During the HyS electrolysis step, SO₂ and H₂O are converted to H2 and H₂SO₄, which implies that the proton exchange membranes (PEMs) to be used for this process should have a high proton conductivity, limited SO2 cross-over and good H2SO4 stability. In order to find alternatives to the costly and high-temperature unstable Nafion®, the aim of this study was to evaluate the H₂SO₄ stability of various novel membranes. To structure the study, the novel PEM materials were grouped according to the PBI-type base component within the blend membranes, resulting in three groups comprising non-PBI based membranes, PBIOO based membranes and F6-PBI based membranes. Nafion®212 was included as reference PEM. By repeating the H₂SO₄ treatment with three different Nafion®212 samples, the obtained Nafion® data was also used to determine the experimental and analytical error margins for the study. The stability of all membranes was determined by submerging the membrane samples in 80 wt% H₂SO₄ at 80 °C for 120 hours. To determine the influence of the acid on the membranes, all samples were characterised before and after the H₂SO₄ treatment and compared in terms of their acid stability. Physical characterisation of the PEMs included the evaluation of weight and thickness changes, while IEC, SEM-EDX, FTIR and TGA were used to elucidate possible chemical changes due to the H₂SO₄ treatment. According to the Nafion®212 data, which had been obtained in triplicate for each of the analytical techniques, the experimental error of both the analytical and H₂SO₄ treatment remained below 10 %, except for the SEM-EDX sulfur-content where significantly larger errors were observed. In spite of the high error margins of the SEM-EDX data (S-content), its results, combined with the results from the other analytical techniques, resulted in a better understanding (both physical and chemical) of the effect the H₂SO₄ had on the membrane. This further facilitated the evaluation and comparison of the various blended PEM materials in terms of their H₂SO₄ stability, and the subsequent relation obtained between the observed stability and the chemical constitution and cross-linking of the membranes. After the 80 wt% H₂SO₄ treatment, significant weight losses were reported for the non-PBI based and PBIOO based membrane groups in comparison with the minimal changes noted for the F6-PBI based group and Nafion®212. Furthermore, significant thickness changes were reported for most of the PBIOO based membranes. The small weight and thickness changes observed for the F6-PBI confirmed the improved stability of this group of membranes in an H₂SO₄ environment, most likely due to the protective role of the partially fluorinated basic polymer and the known strength of the C-F bonds present. The results showed a clear correlation between the H₂SO₄ stability and the specific polymers present in the PEM blends investigated. Specific effects found included sulfonation, salt formation, hydrolysis and the accompanied dissolution of membrane fragments. Significant physical changes, for example ascribed to sulfonation of the concerned polymers, were supported by increased IEC measurements and peak intensities of the FTIR spectra, corresponding to the additional –SO₃H groups present, while a variation in TGA signals served to further support the altered membrane composition and structure due to the H₂SO₄ treatment. In the case of dissolution, the corresponding chemical changes (analytical techniques) were supported by the decreased peak intensities of FTIR spectra, IEC measurements and TGA signals associated with degradation of the polymer backbone. It was shown that the stability of the blended membranes depended on the composition (blend components) of the membrane and the effective cross-linking (interaction) between the blend components. For all three groups examined, it became apparent that blend components sFS and sPSU were, for example, more stable than sPEEK and that ionical cross-linking seemed more effective than covalent cross-linking of blend components. When considering all membranes tested, the non-PBI based blend membranes consisting of (s)PSU and PFS copolymers in the presence of fluorinated cross-linkers and the PBIOO-sPSU blended membranes including most of the F6-PBI based membranes showed sufficient stability to be recommended for SO₂ electrolysis.