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To Expedite Fuel-Cell Maintenance, Rittal Adopts RFID

The German company is adding passive high-memory 13.56 MHz tags to the electrical generator systems it sells and services.
By Andrew Curry
Feb 02, 2010Increasingly, the technologies on which we rely—from cell phone transmission towers to server farms—rely, in turn, on a constant supply of power. Keeping things running, no matter what, requires reliable backup systems.

Batteries tend to be expensive, as well as sensitive to cold and heat extremes, and often last just a few hours. When batteries are insufficient for a particular task, some turn to fuel cells—automated electricity generators that run on hydrogen, alcohol or other fuel, and can supply power for up to a week, depending on the fuel supply. Fuel cells have been used everywhere from the space shuttle and military submarines to remote weather stations and cell phone towers.

Rittal's service technicians will use a tablet PC with a built-in RFID interrogator to read a fuel cell’s maintenance history encoded to an RFID tag.
Fuel cells are not maintenance-free, however. To make servicing and repairing fuel cells as efficient as possible, Rittal, a Herborn, Germany, integrator of fuel-cell solutions, turned to RFID technology. To assemble complete fuel cells, the company takes fuel-cell modules supplied by a third party and adds its own enclosures and system components to them (such as a fan, a heater, a power bar and a circuit breaker). Using an RFID solution supplied by German systems integrator Schreiner LogiData, Rittal incorporates an RFID tag inside the enclosure at the end of the production process, after the assembled fuel cell has been put through final testing. The company ultimately plans to outfit all of the fuel cells it sells with the technology, at no extra charge to customers. "The chips contain numbers similar to electronic nameplates, which identify the fuel cell," says Oliver Puetz-Gerbig, a Schreiner engineer.

Information such as the model type, serial number, production date and location can all be read directly from the fuel cell, using an RFID interrogator built into a tablet PC carried by maintenance technicians employed by Rittal. By storing repair and maintenance data directly on the RFID tag's 1024 bytes of memory, Puetz-Gerbig says, the system goes beyond what could be accomplished with a standard bar code. "The full history of the fuel cell is stored on the tag," he states.

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