Skip the Wall Plug and Charge Gadgets with Fuel Cell Devices

Cape Times (South Africa), December 9, 2008 | Go to article overview

Skip the Wall Plug and Charge Gadgets with Fuel Cell Devices


BYLINE: Dirk Lammers

SIOUX FALLS, South Dakota: | Laptop, cellphone and iPod owners tired of having their devices |run out of charge after a few hours have been patiently waiting for the next portable power source to |arrive.

Tiny fuel cells, powered by |combustible liquids or gasses, have long been touted as the eventual |solution. Potentially, they could power a laptop for days.

But fuel cells have remained a year or two away from reaching the market as companies have worked on making them small, cheap and long-lasting, while making sure they don't overheat.

The US government removed a key roadblock this year when the Department of Transportation amended its hazardous materials regulations to allow cells with methanol, butane or formic acid to be carried on airplanes.

Methanol and butane are |flammable, and formic acid is |corrosive.

"That was one of the largest challenges to this market, to overcome that regulation issue," said Sara Bradford, an energy and power systems consultant for Frost & Sullivan.

Fuel cells, in which a tiny amount of fuel flows into a small chip to generate electricity without combustion, would allow users to skip the wall plug and simply|swap out a fuel cartridge to continue listening to music or check |e-mail.

Bradford thinks products are now truly a year or two away, as electronics manufacturers show more interest and fuel cell makers move beyond prototypes.

"We are closer, much closer, than even two years ago in terms of the companies' internal designs, how they've met their milestones and just the amount of testing and evaluation that's going on right now," Bradford said.

Lilliputian Systems plans to introduce a portable fuel cell late next year for any device that can be charged via a USB port.

The cigarette-pack-size charger will use a canister of butane, |the same fuel used in cigarette lighters, to juice up an iPod, BlackBerry, GPS device or digital camera, said Mouli Ramani, Lilliputian's vice president of business development.

Each teaspoon of the fuel can provide 20 times the run time of a battery of the same size. The charging system would likely sell for $100 to $150 with refill cartridges retailing for $1 to $3, he said.

MTI MicroFuel Cells has been working on fuel cell technology since 2000.

Peng Lim, the Albany-based company's chairman and chief executive, said MTI has been making significant progress recently. Its current methanol fuel cell can produce about three times the energy of a lithium ion battery, common in cellphones. …

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