MTIs Fuel Cells Keep Handhelds Humming

Updated: MTI MicroFuel Cells claims its Mobion technology extends the life of a handheld computer two to 10 times as long as a conventional battery pack-and other companies are working on the fuel cell meth

MTI MicroFuel Cells on Monday announced new technology designed to extend the life of a handheld computer two to ten times as long as a conventional battery pack.

Mobion is based on direct methanol fuel cell technology, a long-studied method of power that promises longer life than the lithium-ion batteries that have been standard in wireless devices for several years.

"Batteries have not kept up," said William Acker, president and CEO at MTI MicroFuel Cells in Albany, N.Y. "Theyre really the laggard slowing down the progress in all these markets."

Several battery companies are working on fuel cell products; Mobion differentiates itself with a smaller form factor and a simpler fuel conversion process than its competitors, officials said. A Mobion battery pack measures less than 40 cubic centimeters in size.

Analysts said this may help further the adoption of fuel cell technology.

"The biggest drive for this technology to become commercialized is the sheer power shortage todays feature-laden electronics employ," said Sara Bradford, industry manager of the Power Supplies and Batteries Group at Frost & Sullivan in San Antonio. "Mobion technology is unique, as it is fully integrated into the device, and not clipped onto the back or side. This slim design could potentially spur a leap in product development in the industry."

Officials said Mobion technology will appear in devices for industrial and government markets by the end of the year. Intermec Technologies Corp. and Harris Corp. plan to incorporate Mobion into radio-frequency tags, and the Army Research Laboratory is considering Mobion to power military radios, MTI officials said.

Still, MTI isnt alone in its efforts to shrink fuel cell batteries; larger companies are nipping at its heels. Shortly after MTI announced its Mobion plans late last month, Tokyo giant Toshiba Corp. announced its own plans for a DMFC (direct methanol fuel cell) designed for small devices. According to company officials, Toshibas 100-milliwatt DMFC prototype is roughly the size of a human thumb.

MTI and Toshiba managed to shrink their fuel cells by keeping the water in the methanol tank to a minimum. The greater concentration of methanol means more efficient conversion as well as a smaller fuel tank.

Toshiba expects to commercialize DMFC for PCs later this year and for smaller handheld devices next year, although the company did not reveal the markets in which it plans to sell the batteries.

Mobion wont appear in consumer devices such as smart phones, PDAs and digital cameras before 2006, officials said, in part because of pending government regulation. But MTI is in discussions with OEMs, Acker said. Furthermore, the company has teamed with The Gillette Co.s Duracell division, in Boston, to provide fuel refill cartridges for MTI batteries. Gillette has experience working with government safety regulations.

Governmental safety concerns about methanol are a major factor keeping fuel cell technology out of consumer devices. While the technology is allowed in the industrial sector, the U.S. Department of Transportation still needs to approve it for phones and the like, in large part because travelers tend to carry their devices with them on airplanes. International travel makes this an international issue, which means an official regulation wont appear any time soon.

"The [Research and Special Programs Administration] Office of Hazardous Materials Safety indicates that the regulatory process may take up to two years," said Joe Delcambre, a spokesman for the RSPA at the DOT in Washington. "A current first step is our intent to present a joint fuel cell industry and government draft proposal to regulate fuel cell cartridges that utilize methanol to the United Nations [hazardous materials] council at their July meeting. If accepted by the U.N., RSPA would move to harmonize our regulations with those of the U.N. by updating the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations through the rule-making process."

MTI officials said to expect fuel cells to appear in consumer devices between 2006 and 2007.

Ironically, the more efficient the fuel cell, the less likely it is to pass airline muster because of the high concentration of methanol. "Its clear that this must all be worked out, but my assessment a year ago and still today is that airlines will eventually allow fuel cells on planes," said Allen Nogee, an analyst at In-Stat/MDR, in Scottsdale, Ariz.

Editors Note: This story was updated to include information on Toshibas fuel cell plans.


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