Fuel Cells For Mobile Users Are Coming, Sort Of

Wouldn't it be nice if there were some way to provide portable power in a way that could be replenished quickly, and was light-weight enough to let you carry a

May 2, 2006

9 Min Read
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The batteries in our notebook computers, PDAs, cell phones, media players and other mobile devices let us work untethered from electrical outlets — but we can't stray too far. Depending on the device, the battery, and what we're doing (WiFI'ing, for example, ups the juice consumption speed) a charge lasts a few hours. Wouldn't it be nice if there were some way to provide portable power in some way that could be replenished quickly, and was light-weight enough to let you carry a day or three's supply around?

Answer: there is — or may be. Fuel cells.

But productized, consumer and business ready fuel cell technology seems to be up around there in the "Way Hard" list along with secure Microsoft OSes and universally funny sitcoms. The best place to find fuel cells that will use methanol (methyl alcohol, the most common approach) is in the news. Go back to news stories and press releases over the past five years, and you'll see any number of "next year for sure" predictions and announcements.

Toshiba, for example, has been demonstrating prototypes of methanol-powered flash-memory and hard-drive digital audio players for a year or so. They're due in stores, according to reports this past fall, "in 2007."

"There is a lot going on in the area with many big name electronics companies like Motorola, NEC, Hitachi and smaller start-ups working on fuel cells for mobile applications" such as laptops, cell phones, and PDAs, according to Jennifer Gangi, program director with Fuel Cells 2000, a non-profit education and outreach program that promotes fuel cells, hydrogen, all types and applications. "Plus There's a lot of activity on the military side as well, as a replacement for the heavy batteries for soldiers' equipment. Startups like Medis and MTI Micro are working on small fuel cells."At least we're getting closer. There are some portable/mobile fuel cell products actually on sale and in use, notably from Jadoo. (Don't get your wallet out, they're not a match for consumers or most business users.) And there's at least one fuel-cell-like product targeted to be available for the last quarter of 2006, in time for the holiday season, from Medis Technologies Ltd.

Also, here's a date to pay attention to: January 1, 2007. While vendors still have a lot of technical issues to address, that's when air travelers will be allowed to carry on board, and use, fuel cells and cartridges, based on conditions drafted by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) at a meeting they held in November 2005, says Robert Wichert, Technical Director of the U.S. Fuel Council (www.usfcc.com).

That's a big deal, since air flights are likely to represent a big piece of fuel cell usage, and even if they weren't allowed in use during flight, business users and consumers would still want to carry the devices for use when they land.

This assumes products meet regulations for safety set by the International Engineering Consortium (IEC). (Here's

a report on the announcement.) Keep in mind that similar regulations also limit the amount of lithium-ion batteries you can carry on or put in your checked bags.

Even if they leap legal hurdles, fuel cells still face no shortage of real-world barriers to success:

  • Heat: fuel cells produce heat, and possibly byproduct emissions, along with power — a fuel cell with efficiency of around 30 percent will put out more of its energy as heat than power.

  • Cost: many fuel cell approaches use platinum to produce their reactions — enough that a fuel cell could easily cost more than the devices its powering.

  • Performance: since DMFCs need air flowing through them for a continual supply of oxygen they're exposed to whatever the prevailing humidity is — and, Dave Dorheim, CEO, Neah Power Systems points out, "The range of humidity in the air being blown across impacts the response of the polymer; too dry and it won't work well, too moist and it gets flooded. In the wide range of humidity that portable devices see, that's a big problem."

  • Power: today's electronic devices demand widely varying amounts of power. For example, Neah's Dorheim explains, the typical notebook computer today operates on an average of 15 or 20 watts, but can have 'power pulses,' usually of less than a second, in the 70 to 100 watt range. "The fuel cell isn't good at putting out high power pulses, batteries are," he says. (His solution would have notebooks include a small LiON battery to provide pulse power.)

  • Safety: methanol is toxic, and can be absorbed through the skin.

So it's no surprise that the best places to find methanol fuel cells are in press reports, and some prototypes shown at trade shows.

If you want to buy a fuel cell right now, try Jadoo Power, which uses refillable two-pound canisters of hydrogen gas that fit into their four-pound fuel cell. Six pounds is perhaps heavy for a business laptop user, but can make sense for someone in a car who doesn't know where or when the next electric outlet will be available, or, say, a professional video cameraperson, who needs to have a day's worth of power at hand and is tired, in every sense, of carrying four or five spare five-pound batteries on their belt.The Jadoo unit has been on the market for about a year and a half, and the company claims to have sold several hundred units so far, mostly to professional video broadcasters.

The fuel canisters can be swapped in less than a minute and the fuel cell has a reservoir, so the changeover can be done without any interruption to the power, Jadoo's VP of Sales and Marketing, Jack Peterson, says.

Jadoo power devices are not intended for handheld devices directly, but can be used as trickle chargers, for banks of police radios, for example, or for your notebook's battery.

The canisters can be refilled from a hydrogen tank you get from any standard commercial gas supplier. You'd keep the tank back at a station or base camp.An H2 tank typically costs $18 to $25; at 70 canister's-worth per tank, a canister refill will cost around thirty to forty cents.

Jadoo's power systems won't fit the price range of most consumers. The fuel cell is $999, refillable canisters are $449 for the 130W one and $849 for the 360W, and the canister refilling station is $1,799. But for professional camera crews, or civilian/military applications, they can make good sense.Aside from price, another barrier to the mobile market for Jadoo is that the canisters currently aren't allowed on passenger flights, although they can go by truck or as air cargo, so you could send some on ahead.

A Disposable Power Pack From Medis Technologies
Possibly closest behind Jadoo on the "buy it" horizon is Medis Technologies Ltd, whose non-methanol-based PowerPack is small portable unit, about the size of two packs of playing cards. The company is working on a disposable power pack aimed at consumers and businesses that would charge mobile electronic (cell phones, PDAs, Pocket PCs, gaming devices), and a refuelable version intended for military users. A PowerPack doesn't replace an existing battery; rather, it's an outboard power source, providing charging or back-up power — enough to keep a cell phone charged for 30 hours of use, or let you run your iPod for 80 hours, or run a handheld PC for fifteen to twenty hours.)

"This is a fully contained product, no refueling," says Medis' Rush. "It's a one-time use, over an eight-week period, then you dispose of it."

There's no electronics inside a Medis PowerPack. You keep the power management connector; refills without new connectors may cost a few dollars less.

Medis doesn't call its products "fuel cells," notes Michelle Rush, VP of Marketing, Medis Technologies Ltd. "It's not a battery, although since we're oxidizing our fuel right on the anode, you could argue it's kind of a hybrid battery, versus taking power from the fuel." According to the regulatory bodies the company has been working with, their devices are more like alkaline batteries, so they don't anticipate problems letting the disposable packs being allowed on passenger planes.Medis's approach has other advantages over DMFC. At roughly 85 percent efficiency, it doesn't emit heat and it's non-flammable.

The company is shooting for a retail launch at the end of 2006 in time for the holiday market with retail prices under $20.

Meanwhile, Medis is also working on larger and refillable versions for GSM phones, ruggedized PDAs and tablet PCs.

For their Direct-Methanol micro-fuel cell, using their patented silicon-based design, Neah Power Systems is shooting to have a product in the market the first half of 2008, according to Neah's Dave Dorheim — one that's significantly different from its competitors.

"The typical DMFC is only about 20 to 25 percent efficient, so if it generates 10 watts of power, at 25%, it will be generating about 30 watts of heat. Ours, we believe, because of the technical approach, will be a bit more efficient" &$151; that is, not as hot.

Neah's intended product would be about twice the volume of a battery &$151; but one cartridge will yield four times the operating time of a battery.UltraCell Corporation is aiming to have their methanol-based UltraCell25 fuel cell product available in 2006, according to a November 2005 announcement.

The company says their Reformed Methanol Fuel Cell (RMFC) technology will have the density of hydrogen fuel cells, providing twice the energy-density of lithium batteries,

On the other hand, the UltraCell25 will weigh about two and a half pounds, and be about the size of a paperback novel. (Whether we're talking about a Robert Parker or Tom Clancy-sized novel, they didn't say.) No pricing is currently given on the Web site, either.

Yet another DMFC contender is MTI Micro, who, like Medis, is working on external power/recharging packs that would work with existing devices. Their M30 will use refillable methanol liquid containers that include values and pumps, and is intended to provide 30-watt average, 140-watt peak power, for emergency voice and data communications devices, and the like. The company has also developed a lower-powered device with pumpless, valveless containers. It would be marketed initially to military and industrial users before it reached businesses and consumers.

So it's fuel cells yesterday and, with luck, fuel cells tomorrow — but not (at least for PDA, phone and notebook toting users) fuel cells today.Daniel P. Dern is a free-lance technology writer. His web site is www.dern.com.

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