Greener recharging with Toshiba

After years of prototypes and promises that the technology was just around the corner, Toshiba has become the first major consumer electronics maker to launch a device using direct methanol fuel cell (DMFC) technology.

The Dynario, a charger that can replenish the batteries in gadgets like cell phones and digital cameras via USB, went on sale on Thursday on Toshiba’s Web store. Sales will be limited to 3,000 units and each will cost ¥29,800 (US$328). Refill bottles with 50 milliliters of methanol will cost ¥3,150 although Toshiba is giving 5 bottles away with each purchase made in the next month.

DMFCs produce electricity from a reaction between methanol, water and air. The only by-products are a small amount of water vapor and carbon dioxide, so DMFCs are often seen as a greener source of energy than traditional batteries. Another advantage of the technology is that they can be refilled with a new cartridge of methanol in seconds and are then ready to begin generating electricity again.

The charger is about the same thickness and width as a cell phone, although it is slightly longer than most phones at 15 centimeters. A single 50-milliliter charge of methanol will enable it to recharge a cell phone twice.

That makes the initial model an expensive way to recharge gadgets but the price will likely fall when volumes increase.

For Toshiba the launch of the charger represents the end of a development program that’s lasted more than six years. An early prototype of the DMFC charger was presented at the Ceatec electronics show in Japan in 2003 and at the time Toshiba said it would likely debut in 2005. Other companies followed with their own prototypes and all gave similar launch estimates but none of them came to market on time.

Over the following years Toshiba has displayed a number of prototypes including a DMFC-powered portable media player and a laptop computer. The time frame, no matter what the year, was always “next year.” Last year Toshiba began promising its first product in 2009.

After the launch of the charger the next step for Toshiba will be gadgets with embedded fuel cells. Earlier this month at Ceatec 2009 one of its DMFCs was on display inside a cellular telephone but both Toshiba and Japanese carrier KDDI, which was demonstrating the phone, gave no estimate for its release.

Toshiba didn’t disclose any plans to sell the charger overseas.

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