Hands on With Toshiba's Fuel Cell Charger

I've been following the development of Toshiba's direct methanol fuel cell (DMFC) since I first saw a prototype in 2003. Since then new prototypes have been rolled out once or twice a year but it always seemed to be under perpetual development ... until last year when Toshiba began promising an imminent launch.

So it was with some excitement that I took Toshiba's first commercial fuel cell charger, called the Dynario, in my hands last week. Toshiba will begin shipping them on Thursday but I've been trying one out over the last few days and I'm quite impressed. Charging and refuelling is easier than I thought, a few squirts of methanol seem to go a long way and charging time isn't much different from using a wall socket.

Fuel cells are interesting because they create electricity from a reaction between methanol, water and air. They can be replenished in a few seconds with a squirt of methanol and then are good to run for several hours. Their only by-products are a small amount of carbon dioxide and water vapor so they are suited to portable use.

One day engineers see them directly powering gadgets, but as a first step Toshiba has developed the DMFC charger. It can be carried in a bag or car and used to recharge cell phones or other devices while away from a wall socket.

My first reaction to the Dynario was to its size. Most of the prototypes shown by Toshiba over the last few years have pretty small but this charger is about the same size and weight as a PlayStation Portable. That doesn't make it impossible to carry around but I wouldn't want it to be any larger or heavier.

Its weight and smart brushed metal jacket give it a solid feeling.

There's not much to know about using it -- a power button is the only control and there are also a pair of lamps and a fuel gauge. When first switched on a blue light comes on signifying the fuel cell is in operation. Almost immediately the neighboring red light comes on to indicate the internal battery is being charged. This small battery is needed to kick start the motor and begin the power generating reaction.

Once it's switched on it's simply a matter of connecting a charging cable to the fuel cell then to the gadget. The red light goes out and the gadget should indicate charging has begun. That's all there is to it.

Toshiba supplies a cable with a USB socket on the end for hooking up to regular USB cables to charge gadgets. There's another cable with a USB plug on it for times when the DMFC's internal battery doesn't have enough power to start the charger working. On those occasions it can be charged by USB itself although in normal operation it's configured something like a hybrid car so that it charges its own battery once the fuel cell reaction has started.

Over the last few days I've charged two cell phones, a PSP, an iPod 5G and a handful of other music players and devices and things have gone pretty much flawlessly. The only annoyance was the need to charge the internal battery of the fuel cell. I didn't know what was happening at first and couldn't figure out why charging of my phone hadn't begun but a call to Toshiba sorted that out.

Refilling is easy and, thankfully, appears to be very well engineered. A small connector ensures the refill bottle is correctly inserted and only then will valves in the charger and the bottle open to allow methanol to be squirted inside.

A refill bottle of methanol holds 50 milliliters so can refill the Dynario's internal 14ml tank just over 3.5 times. Toshiba estimates one refill is enough to charge a cell phone battery twice so a bottle should last about 7 charges. Your mileage will vary according to the gadgets you're recharging and I feel like it was lasting a little longer than advertised, although I didn't measure it.

The fuel cell won't work with every portable device. Its 5 volt, 500mA output is suitable for charging most gadgets that accept power over a USB cable or others that use a single lithium-ion battery or several batteries in parallel, but not those with batteries connected in series. You can get a quick idea by checking the voltage on the battery or in the gadget's manual to see whether it's 3.6 volts or 7.2 volts. The former is OK, the latter is not.

And even then not every product will work. Some products implement proprietary power control signalling on the USB connector so won't be able to talk to the Dynario, but in general you'll should be safe with most mainstream gadgets. Toshiba tested many products available in Japan and found about four out of five worked fine. Some are listed on the company's home page but the list isn't exhaustive. For example, it lists the latest PlayStation Portable, the PSP-3000, but I found it also worked on the original PSP-1000.

An important device missing from the compatibility list is the iPhone 3G. Toshiba said it tested several phones and found some accepted the charge and others didn't. It's hoping to fully support the iPhone in future versions.

For now the Dynario is being offered in a limited batch of 3,000 and only via Toshiba's Japanese online store. Overseas sales are being considered but no plans have been announced.

The Dynario is probably most useful for frequent travellers or heavy users of cell phones as a convenient way to charge while on the move but if that travel involves aircraft it becomes less useful. With its 14ml reservoir fully loaded, it can be taken in an aircraft cabin but not put in checked luggage. Refill cartridges, though, cannot be taken on aircraft at all. Nevertheless, the Dynario could also find use in areas where the electricity supply is bad or as a device for use after natural disasters when power might be out.

The charger costs ¥29,800 (US$325) and a pack of 5 cartridges costs ¥3,150.

It will be interesting to see where the technology goes. Already Toshiba has been demonstrating for more than a year a prototype cell phone with embedded fuel cell charger. Most recently it was shown at the Ceatec exhibition this month with carrier KDDI although the cell phone company has yet to announce any launch plans.

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