Mobile phone fuel cells coming in 2007

Direct Methanol Fuel Cells mix methanol, air and water to make electricity

A fuel cell technology that will offer a quick fix for dead or dying mobile phone batteries could be available in Japan by 2007, Japan's two biggest mobile communications carriers said today at the Wireless Japan 2005 Expo.

Direct Methanol Fuel Cells (DMFC), which typically work by mixing methanol with air and water to produce electrical power, have for years been promoted as an alternative to lithium ion batteries used in notebook PCs and other portable electronics gear. DMFCs are useful because power can be instantly provided by inserting a fuel cartridge recharger, developers say.

A number of Japan's biggest consumer electronics companies have been developing DMFCs, but the prototypes so far have been too big and bulky or incapable of producing enough power to be commercialized.

But officials at NTT DoCoMo Inc. and KDDI Corp., Japan's No. 1 and No. 2 mobile communications carriers, respectively, now say they plan to have fuel cell rechargers for mobile phones in shops in 2007.

Japan's mobile phone vendors spent years trying to get the battery life of third-generation (3G) mobile phones to match that of the country's 2G digital phones. Next year, a new problem will hit vendors as they put power-hungry digital TV receivers into phones when the country's digital TV network goes nationwide. The antennas will cut usage time -- and that's where DMFCs will help, vendors and carriers said.

DoCoMo has a prototype charger on display at Wireless Japan that it is developing with Fujitsu Laboratories Ltd. The device is close to making the cut for those of the carrier's nearly 50 million subscribers who are looking for a quick power fix, said Kazuhiko Takeno, a manager in the company's technical support group.

The recharger, which is a cradle design, is expected to be commercially available sometime in mid-2007, Takeno said, noting that the version on display at the Expo is a big improvement on an earlier model shown in September. While it's about the same size as the older model, the new prototype has enough power to recharge a mobile phone battery three times, he said. The prior model could recharge a battery only once.

Fuel-cell technology is also looking viable for KDDI's customers, according to Youichi Iriuchijima, an assistant manager at the company's IT development division.

At October's Ceatec Japan 2004 exhibition, Iriuchijima showed prototype rechargers from Hitachi Ltd. and Toshiba Corp., promising that improved versions would be available in 2006. That target date has slipped to January 2007, mainly because regulations will be changed that year to allow passengers to carry methanol on planes, he said.

Both Hitachi and Toshiba have improved their technology over the last nine months, Iriuchijima said.

The designs shown last October were only mock-ups and were displayed under glass. This year's versions both actually produce electricity. To prove the point, Iriuchijima took a vial of diluted methanol and plugged it into the side of the Hitachi recharger, and the mobile phone it was supposed to power immediately sprang into electronic life.

Iriuchijima did not reveal pricing or other details.

KDDI also showed even smaller versions of DMFCs that were integrated as mock-ups into mobile phones. These, however, did not produce electricity.

Shrinking DMFCs to fit into mobile phones -- and making them good enough to be commercially viable -- will take about three years, Iriuchijima said. "Replacing lithium ion batteries with same-size fuel cells is very difficult," he said.

DoCoMo may not make such fuel cells available until the end of the decade, Takeno said.

Wireless Japan runs until Friday at the Tokyo Big Sight exhibition center.

Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.

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