Although the collaboration wont produce a viable product for some time, IBM executives touted the prototype as an example of the fact that the fuel-cell technology was viable and capable of governing the future direction of ThinkPad hardware, which will be transferred to Chinas Lenovo Group later this year. The external fuel cell pack, which looks very much like a docking station, works with existing ThinkPad X-Series, T-Series and R-Series models.
"Its the first step in a long journey, really," said Howard Locker, chief architect for mobile and desktop systems at IBM, in an interview.
To many in the computing world, fuel cells stand as a way to kickstart battery development, which has been greatly outpaced by improvements in the silicon circuits they power. While the technology has moved slowly forward, one analyst firm predicts that fuel-cells sales will reach up to $2 billion by 2012, and industry proponents keep demonstrating new applications for the technology. Most innovation, however, continues to be in refining the chemistries and the manufacturing techniques needed to reduce the cost.
The prototype ThinkPad fuel-cell system works like a hybrid gas-electric car. Since a laptop requires about 75 watts of power, the 20 watts or so the fuel cell produces isnt enough to power the entire laptop from a "standing start."
Instead, the fuel cells output plugs into the ThinkPads power jack, trickle-charging the existing ThinkPad battery and enabling the entire system to remain online for about sixteen hours—eight hours of battery life from the internal battery, plus eight hours from the supplementary fuel cell. The fuel cell also contains a small rechargeable battery, Locker said.
IBM executives declined to comment upon the chemical makeup of the Sanyo fuel-cell design, citing a confidentiality clause between the two companies. However, a report by industry publication EE Times suggested that the 2.2-kilogram fuel cell combined DMFC (direct-methanol) technology and a rechargeable battery to demonstrate the viability of hybrid technology. According to Sanyo executives interviewed by the paper, the hybrid fuel-cell technology could be commercialized by 2007.