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Avista Labs Demonstrates Modular PEM Technology
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By Debbi L. Smith, National Hydrogen Association


Avista Labs is a company that thinks outside the box, er, … the stack. Frank Ignazzitto, Vice President for Marketing and Sales, demonstrated what Avista Labs calls “hot swappable” Modular Cartridge Technology™ at the Houston Advanced Research Center (HARC) on March 27, 2003.

Designed for the stationary power market, the Independence 1000™ uses six of Avista Labs’ patented, air-breathing, 650 series cartridges to provide one kilowatt/48 volts DC on industrial-grade hydrogen. The sealed cartridges, which look much like a toner cartridge and are changed out in a similar fashion, each contain four PEM membrane electrode assemblies (MEAs) manufactured by 3M. When the fuel cell needs maintenance, the cartridges can be swapped out while the unit is on—”hot swappable”—without a complete loss of power.
Designed for the stationary power market, the Independence 1000™ uses six of Avista Labs’ patented, air-breathing, 650 series cartridges to provide one kilowatt/48 volts DC on industrial-grade hydrogen. Each sealed cartridge contains four PEM membrane electrode assemblies. Avista’s membranes are completely self-hydrating.

One of the technical problems long associated with PEM fuel cells, membrane hydration, has been uniquely addressed by Avista Labs. Groups of MEAs are periodically shorted for less than a second, which generates enough water to keep the membrane correctly hydrated for maximum power output. This patented process is combined with an uncommon design of the gas diffusion layer, which is placed on top of the MEA to allow Avista’s membranes to be completely self-hydrating. Most other fuel cell systems require either a hydrated fuel stream or separate systems to hydrate the membrane.

To test manufacturer claims and understand life-cycle costs of owning and operating a PEM fuel cell, HARC provided independent third-party verification to one of Avista Labs’ earlier fuel cells, the SR72™. The three-kilowatt unit was successfully tested at HARC for two-and-a-half years.

Two weeks before the March demonstration, HARC took delivery on a one-kilowatt unit, the Independence 1000™, “to run simulated load tests,” said Dan Bullock, Project Manager for the Energy Group at HARC. The Independence 1000™ has been marketed for use in power-sensitive applications in which an uninterruptible power supply is important.

HARC is running simulations with power interruptions to see how the Avista Labs’ fuel cell meets the challenge. “We are happy with its performance so far and we think this is a user-friendly fuel cell. We have it in mind for some rural electrical needs in Mexico.”
The six sealed cartridges can be swapped out—much like toner cartridges—while the unit is running, without losing power.

Remote applications and backup power are the early introductory markets for these units,” said Ignazzitto. “We have a partnership with Automated Railroad Maintenance Systems, Inc., to use our fuel cells for backup and remote power for railroads. There are about 110,000 remote railroad sites in the U.S. alone.”

Closer to its home office in Spokane, Washington [U.S.A.], Avista Labs has scaled its Independence 500™ into a three-kilowatt unit for use at an FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) radio transmitter/receiver site at McChord Air Force Base in Tacoma. The fuel cell operates on industrial-grade hydrogen supplied by Airgas. The FAA site requires the fuel cell to operate in all weather conditions. Very cold temperatures have typically been problematic for PEM fuel cells, so Avista Labs equipped its unit with a heating pad under the cartridges. Even though the fuel cells are operational when the temperature drops to 32°F (0°C), the heat keeps them warm enough for quicker start-up and keeps the membranes from freezing in an arctic blast.

To learn more about Avista Labs, visit them at www.avistalabs.com. ©2003. All Rights Reserved. A Publication of the National Hydrogen Association.
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