Cells Fuel Innovation

MTI, others explore fuel cell technology for use in mobile computing.

In mobile computing, the equipment is only as good as the power supply that runs it. While processors get faster, networks get wider and applications get smarter, battery technology continues to lag. It has been years since a mobile device has run on anything more innovative than a lithium-ion battery.

But power supply innovation is arriving in the form of micro fuel cells—electrochemical devices that create electricity from hydrogen gas or alcohol.

These devices, designed to last as much as 10 times longer than a standard lithium-ion battery, should hit the market by 2004.

"Battery technology, although improving, was not improving at the rate it needed to be," said Bill Acker, president and CEO of MTI Micro Fuel Cells Inc., a division of Mechanical Technology Inc., in Albany, N.Y. "Youre seeing everything being used in a way thats always on."

MTI is among several companies—including smaller enterprises, such as Manhattan Scientific Inc. and Smart Fuel Cell GmbH, as well as larger companies, such as Motorola Inc.—that are exploring fuel cell technology.

MTI this month unveiled its latest prototype fuel cell, which runs on methanol. About the size of a deck of cards, the prototype includes a replaceable fuel cartridge. It requires no pumps and can work upside down, which hadnt been true of previous iterations.

The fuel cell is surrounded by a plastic membrane coated with a catalyst. The fuel comes up one side and mixes with air to finish the circuit, meaning it works everywhere but underwater, generally not an issue for the average technology road warrior.

MTI plans fuel cells to appear in devices ranging from cell phones to notebook computers by the middle of the decade.

Size will certainly be an issue. Right now, MTIs prototype is bigger than most folding cell phones. Smart Fuel Cell, of Munich, Germany, reported that it might start selling a fuel cell for notebooks by years end, but it is even larger than MTIs prototype.

MTIs Acker said the company is working on the size. "Im not going to try to predict a Moores Law for fuel cells, but by better integrating the system, we can continue to shrink it quite a bit," Acker said.

Potential customers said that battery life means most to them in larger devices—namely, notebooks.

"I rarely find that my current battery life on a cell phone is inadequate. I simply recharge it every night," said Vincent Bray, a strategic planning and research manager at Toyota Motor Sales Inc., in Torrance, Calif., who travels frequently for work. "However, for a laptop, a micro fuel cell could be beneficial. Im always searching airports for outlets since the battery life on my computer is inadequate. Maybe with a fuel cell, I could actually use a laptop in the airport and in flight—without worrying about having to plug in somewhere."

Theres the rub. Micro fuel cells may not be allowed on airplanes because the hydrogen-based devices use a highly flammable gas, while the methanol-based devices include an inflammable liquid. The products are designed so that recharging them requires snapping in a new fuel cartridge. The prototypes are too far from market for regulatory officials to have tested them, but analysts have doubts about their future.

"Micro fuel cells are a long, long way off, but if they were to come about, youd have the problem of someone trying to reload them in an inappropriate place, [such as] an airliner," said Ken Dulaney, an analyst at Gartner Inc., in Stamford, Conn.

The fuel cell industry will hold a conference in Boston next month. One of the main areas of discussion at the meeting will be how to comply with regulations regarding the transport of methanol-, hydrogen- and metal-hydride-based portable fuel cell devices.

Officials at fuel cell companies said that its all about the casing surrounding the fuel cell, noting that lithium is flammable when not encased in plastic. (Little bottles of airline liquor can be ignited, too, and there are federal regulations about their packaging, as well.)

"Packaging matters," said Robert Hockaday, chief fuel cell scientist for Manhattan Scientific, in Los Alamos, N.M. "Once its packaged, the Department of Transportation can figure out the safety of the material. Obviously, you dont want this thing to be dripping. You want the fuel to be immobilized."

Hockaday said his company is aiming to hit the market with both hydrogen- and methanol-based fuel cells next year, but the lack of corporate partnerships to manufacture the devices may delay the product into 2004.

Hockaday said that a pure fuel cell approach may not be the best way to satiate industrys power hunger. Automakers have been investigating fuel cells for hybrid electric cars, and fuel cell companies are looking at a hybrid approach for the wireless industry, too.

"My hope for fuel cells is to start out being a charger of batteries," Hockaday said. "Its hard to beat the batteries in all categories, and, in some cases, a hybrid looks like the ideal approach."