IBM, Sanyo Announce Fuel Cell Prototype

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TOKYO -- IBM's Japanese unit and Sanyo have developed a prototype direct methanol fuel cell (DMFC) for notebook PCs that will probably be commercialized around 2007 or 2008, the companies said at a news conference here today.

IBM is considering endorsing the fuel cell for use in its ThinkPad-branded laptop PCs, it said. Electronics vendors hope that fuel cells will allow portable devices to run for longer without recharging than today's battery technologies.

DMFCs are being developed by a number of companies. They typically work by mixing methanol with air and water to produce electrical power. Only methanol is required as fuel, and the by-products are heat, water, and carbon dioxide.

The fuel cell prototype, like others announced by Japanese companies such as Toshiba and NEC, clips on the back of the notebook and wraps around underneath it. Sanyo's prototype weighs 4.4 pounds and can provide about 8 hours of power from a single 8-cubic-inch fuel cartridge containing pure methanol, according to Mitsuru Homma, group executive of Sanyo's Power Solutions Group.

Hybrid Design

The prototype system also contains a slim lithium ion polymer battery, which is built into the base of the unit under the notebook PC, and which is charged by the fuel cell even as the fuel supplies power to the PC. While the fuel cell by itself supplies a maximum of 12 watts of power, the combination of the fuel cell with the polymer battery can supply a maximum of 72 watts--enough to meet the peak power demands of high-end ThinkPads, Homma said.

Sanyo and IBM call this combination of fuel cell plus battery a hybrid design. They have adopted this approach to overcome DMFC technology's lack of power, the companies said.

Prototypes announced by other Japanese electronics companies generate between 10 watts and 20 watts of power, and developers at these companies are improving designs so that future DMFCs can produce up to about 30 watts. However, this is still not enough to meet peak power needs of notebook computers running many applications, according to Sanyo.

ThinkPad Future

IBM has been looking for DMFC designs that are durable and powerful, and decided to work with Sanyo on the hybrid design, and Sanyo's approach looks so far to be the most suitable for ThinkPads, said Arimasa Naito, an IBM fellow.

The ThinkPad line was developed in Japan at the Yamato Laboratory, which is part of IBM's PC Division. IBM will continue to work with Sanyo to develop the hybrid system further, and IBM is considering the technology for use with ThinkPads, Naito said. IBM did not say more about its level of commitment to the technology. IBM is selling its PC Division to Chinese PC vendor Lenovo.

A commercial version of the fuel cell will be able to produce between 20 watts and 30 watts of power, and an initial version for the corporate market could cost about $463, said Hiroshi Kurokawa, a manager at Sanyo's Mobile Energy Company. Later versions for the consumer market would cost less, he said.

The system could be available for notebook PCs made by other vendors, according to Ryan Watson, a Sanyo spokesman.

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