Company Makes Plans for Portable Fuel Cells

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An Albany, New York, fuel cell company plans to unveil a new design this week that it says solves a key hurdle in the manufacturing of fuel cells for notebook PCs and handheld devices.

MTI Micro Fuel Cells' new Mobion technology will make it easier for manufacturers to build long-lasting DMFC (direct methanol fuel cell) technology for industrial and consumer handheld devices, says William Acker, president and chief executive officer of the company.

Fuel cell technology is already used to extend the operating life of large industrial devices. Several companies are working to see if the technology can be miniaturized for use in cell phones and notebooks, but many hurdles remain, including whether consumers will want to pay for replacement fuel cartridges.

Power Source

Fuel cells produce power when a mixture of methanol and water enters the cell and reacts with oxygen to produce energy, carbon dioxide, and more water. Much of the early work in fuel-cell technology has used a series of pumps and valves to return the excess water produced in the reaction back to the methanol reservoir, where the two liquids mix and are returned to the fuel cell.

The Mobion technology directs a 100 percent methanol solution into a fuel cell on one side of a thin membrane. The methanol reacts with a catalyst on the membrane and a combination of water and oxygen drawn from the other side of the cell. The protons from those molecules pass through the membrane, but the electrons are redirected out of the cell and captured as energy.

The small amount of excess water molecules in the reaction are released as water vapor, says Shimshon Gottesfeld, chief technology officer at MTI. Over the course of the operating period, the amount of excess water released will not be noticeable to the user, he says.

Mobion is different from other fuel cell designs in that the water in the reaction is managed entirely within the fuel cell, eliminating the need for complicated pumps, Gottesfeld says.

Fuel cells made in this manner will be easier to mass produce because they have fewer moving parts than other fuel-cell designs, Acker says. They will also work more efficiently because the fuel is not mixed with water until the chemical reaction occurs, he says.

MTI claims the Mobion fuel cells will extend a device's operating life by 2.5 times as many hours as provided by a standard lithium ion battery. Consumers would likely purchase fuel cartridges that could be plugged into the back of a device like an expansion card, although the designs are still preliminary, Acker says.

Gaining Support?

Some large consumer products companies are backing MTI's approach, including DuPont and Gillette. DuPont makes the membrane used in MTI's fuel cells, and Gillette is partnering with the company to distribute the fuel cartridges alongside Gillette subsidiary Duracell's batteries. Flextronics International has signed up as a manufacturing partner.

Several problems need to be worked out before fuel cells are a viable commercial technology, says Allen Nogee, principal analyst with InStat/MDR in Scottsdale, Arizona. For one thing, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration has to decide if fuel cells will be allowed on airplanes, he says.

Also, it's an open question as to whether consumers can be persuaded that longer usage periods are worth the expense of purchasing a new fuel cartridge every time the power runs out, Nogee says. That approach has certainly worked well for most battery-powered consumer-electronic devices, but laptop and cell phone users are accustomed to simply plugging their device into a wall outlet when they need more power, he says.

Batteries Fall Behind

But if the vision of a mobile computing world is going to be realized, the same type of improvements that chip makers have made in power management need to occur on the power supply side of the equation, says John Jackson, senior analyst with The Yankee Group in Boston.

"It's almost as if the lithium-ion [battery manufacturers] missed the memo on Moore's Law," Jackson says.

Moore's Law is actually a prediction made by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore that the number of transistors on a silicon chip would double every eighteen months or so. The chip industry has made that prediction come true for over 20 years, while the battery industry has not come close to the same rate of improvement, Jackson says.

MTI plans to start small with the introduction of a fuel cell for a handheld RFID tag reader later this year, Acker says. Users of handheld devices in industrial settings will probably appreciate the benefits of fuel-cell technology before consumers, he says.

Another potential market is the military. A modern military unit uses a great deal of electronic gear that must be powered by heavy rugged batteries, and fuel cells provide a lighter and more powerful way to keep that gear running, Acker says.

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