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October 1, 2006

3 Min Read
Fill 'er up

As portable electronic devices add more energy-sapping functions and as the current industry standard of lithium-ion batteries experiences limited but potentially dangerous failures in the field, miniaturized fuel-cell alternatives are looking to power everything.

On the basis of rechargeability and energy output relative to size, lithium-ion batteries became the dominant power source for an ever-broadening array of portable electronics devices, but the late summer recall of some 6 million batteries from producer Sony in Apple and Dell laptop computers is drawing unfavorable attention to the technology at a time when wireless capabilities, DVD players, and Bluetooth software on laptops as well as cameras, MP3 players, web access, and television functions on mobile phones exert an increasing energy toll.

Direct Methanol Fuel Cell Corp. (DMFCC; Pasadena, CA), a subsidiary of Viaspace Inc., is trying to seize the opportunity, commercializing a technology originally developed at the Caltech/NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. DMFCC is staying out of manufacturing, signing agreements with existing electronics and cartridge suppliers, including Seed Corp. (Tsu-city, Japan) a molder of printer toner cartridges with 125 presses and 60 ultrasonic welders; SMC Co. Ltd. (Euiwang-City, South Korea), a lithium-ion supplier to Korean electronics giant LG; and Elentec Co. Ltd. (Suwon-city, South Korea), a maker of lithium-ion battery packs for cell phones, PDAs, lap tops, and camcorders.

DMFCC says interest is greatest in Asia, with Toshiba, NEC, Hitachi, Sanyo, and Panasonic of Japan and Samsung and LG of Korea pushing commercialization for the fuel cells in their products as early as 2007.

The disposable fuel cells use the hydrogen atoms found in methanol (CH3OH), a relatively inexpensive liquid with six times the energy density of compressed hydrogen, allowing for much smaller tanks. According to Carl Kukkonen, CEO of DMFCC, the cartridges consist of a polycarbonate (PC) housing with a thermoplastic bladder used to hold the methanol. The PC offers good compatibility with the fuel and was most attractive due to impact resistance. Currently in the prototype phase, the cartridges feature an 8-10% glass-fiber reinforced PC, but the second generation of cartridges will look to apply a more economical material. The International Civil Aviation Organization had agreed to allow methanol fuel cells on planes starting in 2007, when the first cartridges will likely be introduced in Samsung and Toshiba laptop computers.

Longer life

Although it depends on the programs being used, Kukkonen says Toshiba estimates that a laptop could run for up to 10 hours on one fuel cartridge that retails for $4 (see table). For a cell phone, three weeks of standby time and 700 minutes of talk time would be possible with one cartridge, but using a video function would reduce that by a factor of two, with a mobile-phone cartridge running around $2. Kukkonen points out that charging is instantaneous, since you simply replace the cartridge, and all these times could be lengthened if a wall plug is used whenever possible. The company assumes roughly two cartridges per month would be used for the three-year life of a device, adding up to 72 of the cells.

Taking into account portable devices that could use the cartridges and their respective growth, as well as what it calls conservative fuel-cell adoption predictions, DMFCC says the worldwide fuel-cell market could grow from 18.9 million in 2006, to 105 million by 2011, for an annual rate of 40.9%.

Tony Deligio • [email protected]

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