Fuel cell coming to a handheld near you

It may be years before your car is powered by a fuel cell, but your handheld computer won’t have to wait too long if engineers at MTI MicroFuel Cells Inc. have their way.

On Thursday, MTI Micro unveiled the latest prototype of its direct methanol fuel cell, a power supply that is about the size of a deck of playing cards and promises to let handheld computers, cell phones and other small computing devices work away from a power outlet for about 10 times as long as they can today, according to MTI Micro Chief Executive Officer Bill Acker, who detailed the fuel cell pack in an interview.

Due for commercial release in 2004, the portable power supply is designed to initially be used for recharging cell phones and handheld computers, in place of an electrical outlet. That’s because the latest prototype of MTI Micro’s fuel cell only generates power. To actually deliver juice to a device, the fuel cell pack requires a companion battery.

“In order to go to market, the initial entry point will be an auxiliary accessory device,” Acker said.

The company is working with device manufacturers to create versions of the power supply that can be plugged into a device to recharge a current lithium-ion battery or act as an alternative power source. It hasn’t yet announced any specific partnerships, though company officials demonstrated the latest prototype working with a converged phone-PDA (Personal Digital Assistant) from Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd.

Future iterations of MTI Micro’s technology will be combined with a small battery to allow the pack to replace the lithium-ion battery and be fully contained in the device, he said.

The power supply, developed at MTI Micro, in Albany, New York, makes energy out of methanol fuel. When it runs out of juice, all a user has to do is insert a new fuel cartridge, which is about the same size as the cartridge in a fountain pen.

The direct methanol fuel cell follows a different formula from similar technology being designed to power automobiles and homes, which make use of a technology known as a PEM (Proton Exchange Membrane) fuel cell. PEM fuel cell devices follow a more complex process and typically operate at higher temperatures than direct methanol fuel cells.

The direct methanol fuel cell originally was developed at Los Alamos National Laboratory, in Los Alamos, New Mexico. MTI Micro has licensed that technology and hired on as its chief technology officer Shimshon Gottesfeld, who led the fuel cell research at Los Alamos for nearly 15 years. The company, which is a subsidiary of Mechanical Technology Inc., acquired another slice of its intellectual property and funding from DuPont Co.

In its own development of a direct methanol fuel cell, MTI Micro has devised a number of methods for making the power supplies more portable. For one, the design doesn’t pump water through the inner cells, as is the case with the design originally developed at Los Alamos. Fuel cells that do use water pumps require the power source to always be positioned upright, whereas MTI Micro’s design will work in any orientation.

MTI Micro is not alone in its pursuit of making fuel cell technology a mainstream source of power for portable devices. Casio Computer Co. Ltd. has developed a fuel cell power pack for a laptop computer that will be about the size of a large conventional laptop battery when it is ready for commercialization in the next two years. Similar development is under way at Toshiba Corp., Hitachi Ltd. and Motorola Inc. [See, “Casio develops fuel cell for mobile devices,” March 5.]

“There’s been a lot of interest in fuel cell, particularly in the last six months as Japanese battery companies have jumped into the game,” Acker said. “These companies recognize that new technology can mean major shifts in the battery industry.”

MTI in October 2001 introduced its first prototype, which measured 180 cubic centimetres in size. In March the company showed a second prototype with some improvements that was 20 percent smaller than its predecessor. The prototype detailed Thursday is only 90 cubic centimetres, Acker said.

“Over the past year we’ve made substantial progress,” he said.

MTI Micro is designing its fuel cell system to be easily manufacturable so it can be made cheaply enough for the mass market, Acker said. The company doesn’t yet have a target price for its product, but he said it should be competitive with current lithium-ion batteries.

“We also believe that consumers will be interested in paying a premium for the extra benefits of longer battery life,” Acker said.