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For Release: May 20, 2003

Sally V. Harrington
Media Relations Office

NASA Advancing Fuel Cell Technology for Space Transportation Applications

Fuel cell power generation technology originally developed by NASA has seen extensive commercial development for future automotive and residential applications. NASA's Glenn Research Center, Cleveland, is now leveraging those commercial developments to further advance the technology for space transportation applications. The power systems that result will be substantially advanced compared to today's alkaline units.

ElectroChem, Inc. of Woburn, Mass., and Teledyne Energy Systems, Inc. of Hunt Valley, Md., each have delivered a breadboard proton-exchange-membrane (PEM) fuel cell power generation system to NASA's Johnson Space Center, Houston, to be independently tested by NASA to verify performance, endurance and operational capabilities. ElectroChem delivered a 1-kW PEM fuel cell generation system and Teledyne, a 5-kW PEM fuel cell power generation system.

A fuel cell is an electrochemical device that combines hydrogen and oxygen to produce electrical power, and its only by-product is water. Alkaline fuel cells, a similar technology to PEM fuel cells, are the primary source of electrical power on the Space Shuttle orbiter. Although reliable, alkaline fuel cells are a costly and aging technology. The advantages of PEM technology over alkaline technology are numerous - higher power, lower weight, increased safety, longer life, improved reliability, reduced operations and lower cost. Although highly reliable, alkaline fuel cells have no large-scale commercial applications. On the other hand, PEM technology is actively being developed for future automotive and residential applications.

"PEM fuel cells are leading the way, having emerged as the leading fuel cell technology for near-term commercial applications," said Mark Hoberecht, Glenn Fuel Cell Technology manager. "NASA recognizes the valuable attributes of PEM fuel cells, and is partnering with commercial vendors to adapt this technology for future space applications."

The delivery of the breadboards is the end result of 16-month contracts that were awarded to both vendors in December 2001 to design, assemble and test breadboard power generation systems at the 1-5 kW power level. At the conclusion of the testing, one or both vendors may be awarded optional contract tasks to design, assemble and test engineering model PEM fuel cell generation systems as the next step in developing this technology for future space-flight missions.

This is being done in support of NASA's Space Launch Initiative (SLI), which is the key to open further the space frontier for continued scientific exploration and economic expansion. The SLI goals are to ensure the provision of space access and improve it by increasing safety, reliability and affordability. The PEM fuel cell development effort at Glenn is part of the Vehicle Systems Research and Technology Project led by NASA's Langley Research Center, Hampton, Va., under the Next Generation Launch Technology Program.

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