Fuel cells closer as alternative to short-lived batteries

Associated Press / December 1, 2008
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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. - Laptop, cellphone, and iPod owners tired of having their devices run out of charge after a few hours have been patiently waiting for the next portable power source to arrive.

Tiny fuel cells, powered by combustible liquids or gasses, have long been touted as the eventual solution. Potentially, they could power a laptop for days between refills.

But fuel cells have perennially remained a year or two away from reaching the market as companies have worked on making them small, cheap, and long-lasting, while making sure they don't overheat.

The US government removed a key roadblock this year when the Department of Transportation amended its hazardous materials regulations to allow cells with methanol, butane, or formic acid to be carried on airplanes. Methanol and butane are flammable, and formic acid is corrosive.

"That was one of the largest challenges to this market, to overcome that regulation issue," said Sara Bradford, an energy and power systems consultant for Frost & Sullivan.

Fuel cells, in which a tiny amount of fuel flows into a small chip to generate electricity without combustion, would allow users to skip the wall plug and simply swap out a fuel cartridge to continue listening to music or checking e-mail.

Bradford thinks products are now truly a year or two away, as electronics manufacturers show more interest and fuel cell makers move beyond trade-show prototypes.

"We are closer, much closer, than even two years ago in terms of the companies' internal designs, how they've met their milestones and just the amount of testing and evaluation that's going on right now," Bradford said.

Lilliputian Systems Inc., a Wilmington, Mass., company founded by former Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers, plans to introduce a portable fuel cell late next year for any device that can be charged via a USB port.

The cigarette-pack-size charger will use a canister of butane, the same fuel used in cigarette lighters, to juice up an iPod, BlackBerry, GPS device, or digital camera, said Mouli Ramani, Lilliputian's vice president of business development.

Each teaspoon of the fuel can provide 20 times the run time of a battery of the same size. The charging system would likely sell for $100 to $150 with refill cartridges retailing for $1 to $3, he said.

MTI MicroFuel Cells Inc. has been working on fuel cell technology since 2000. In 2002, was showing a prototype it planned to bring to market by 2004.

Peng Lim, the Albany, N.Y.-based company's chairman and chief executive, said MTI has been making significant progress recently. It's current methanol fuel cell can produce about three times the energy of a lithium ion battery, common in cell phones. With further improvements, the cell could one day last 10 times longer than lithium, he said.

MTI plans to introduce an external charger by late 2009 as it works with electronics manufacturers on building fuel cells into devices. Lim said MTI has signed partnerships with the mobile-phone division of Samsung Electronics Co. of South Korea, a Japan-based digital camera company and Neo Solar Co. Ltd., which makes computers that are smaller than laptops.

Lilliputian also plans to transition to embedding fuel cells in gadgets. Ramani said the company has signed commercialization agreements with three large, multinational entities he cannot yet name.

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