Group creates fuel-cell guidelines for mobile PCs

An industry standards group that includes chip makers Intel Corp. and STMicroelectronics NV has published a document detailing the requirements a fuel cell technology would need to power a mobile PC, the group said in a Thursday statement.

The new guidelines from the Mobile PC Extended Battery Life Working Group should help speed the development of longer lasting fuel-cell power sources for notebooks and other mobile computers, a development viewed as important for the growing popularity of Wi-Fi and other wireless Internet technologies.

The development of wireless power supplies has lagged mobile Internet efforts. Batteries still last only a few hours in notebook computers before needing a recharge, but the group says fuel cell systems could last for days.

The guidelines will help developers of fuel cells for mobile devices, such as Millennium Cell Inc. and Tekion Solutions Inc., by outlining key technical requirements for fuel cells to work well inside a mobile PC.

The technology is available today to put a fuel-cell system inside a notebook PC, but it wouldn’t be able to supply enough power for the average user, said Andy Keates, power sources enabling manager at Intel and a member of the group.

“You could build a 10-watt to 12-watt [fuel-cell] power supply now, which is fine for a PC not doing very much, like using Word,” he said. But turn on the DVD player, which requires 20 watts of power, and you run into trouble.

Next year, the first external fuel-cell power sources will likely be available, Keates said, and will likely find use among people working in remote areas without reliable power, like field researchers or the military.

The main trouble with fuel-cell systems is they’re too big to be put inside notebook PCs, that’s why it’s easier to build an external fuel cell power supply, Keates said. A fuel-cell system requires more space than a battery because it includes the fuel cell itself, as well as supporting systems similar to a car engine, like a fuel pump, cooling system, and starter battery. Batteries require few supporting systems.

Another engineering hurdle is that fuel cells operate differently than batteries, the group said. Fuel cells provide a steady supply of power, whereas power demand in notebook computers is very uneven, driven by bursts of power demand as different parts of the notebook, like the DVD drive or hard drive, are tapped for use, the group said. The stored charge of a battery matches this kind of uneven power demand, but fuel cells need careful management.

The group takes no position on which power supply technology might win the battle for notebook supremacy, said Keates.

“The industry has a lot of opinions about which one is going to be the winner. The fuel-cell companies are very confident, but the lithium-ion battery makers point out their 15 years of service and constant improvement. It’s an open race,” said Keates.

The fuel-cell guidelines cover size and power issues as well as electrical, mechanical, control, thermal, environmental and regulatory aspects of fuel cell designs for mobile PCs, including those made for use inside a device, and external fuel cells.

The Extended Battery Life Working Group was formed in 2002 as a collaborative effort to lower barriers for new power technologies aimed at mobile PCs. It includes PC-related companies such as Microsoft Corp., Dell Inc. and laptop contract manufacturer Quanta Computer Inc., as well as battery and fuel cell developers. It took the group six months to develop the fuel-cell specifications, Keates said.

Related links:

Mobile standard gets Wi-Fi pick-me-up

SPRING IDF: Intel to keep users mobile in 2006 and beyond

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