Panasonic Shows Laptop Fuel Cell

LAS VEGAS -- Matsushita Battery Industrial, a division of Panasonic, is showing a direct methanol fuel cell (DMFC) for laptop computers at the International Consumer Electronics Show here this week.

The fuel cell, a working model of which is on display powering a laptop PC, is the product of about five years of development work, said Tommy Ichinose, chief engineer with one of the company's technology development groups.

The fuel cell creates electricity from a reaction between a methanol and water mixture and air.

Using 200 cubic centimeters (about 7 ounces) of fuel and in conjunction with a standard laptop battery it can power a computer for about 20 hours, said Ichinose.

Hurdles Ahead

There are still several hurdles to be overcome before the DMFC can be commercialized, Ichinose said. The first is that current regulations prohibit the carrying of methanol on board aircraft, so DMFC-powered products couldn't be taken on planes. Clearance for that isn't expected until 2007.

Then there is cost. DMFCs use several expensive components including platinum and a membrane, across which the chemical reaction takes place. If any company were to commercialize a DMFC now it would likely cost more than the laptop it would power, said Ichinose.

Many electronics companies have already demonstrated prototypes of DMFCs and all face the same issues regarding regulations and cost. Toshiba and NEC were both bullish on the technology early and had promised commercial fuel cells would be ready by 2004. However, they are still not on the market and not expected until at least next year.

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