Engineers show fuel cell progress

But commercial use unlikely until 2007

CHIBA, Japan -- Companies working on direct methanol fuel cells (DMFC), an emerging power source that could one day replace rechargeable batteries for some applications, are showing their latest progress at this week's Ceatec Japan 2005 exhibition. But for all the advances evident, the chances that they will soon be powering your laptop haven't changed much.

DMFCs work by generating electricity when methanol mixed with water reacts with air through a thin sheet of plastic called a membrane. Engineers envision future power cells that can provide power for long periods of time -- perhaps enough to keep a laptop computer running all day -- and that can be recharged with a simple refill of methanol.

At last year's show, both Toshiba Corp. and Hitachi Ltd. showed prototype rechargers for cell phones based on the technology. Similar prototypes are back this year, and the technology has developed enough for the companies to provide some technical details, which were missing last year.

Toshiba said its phone recharger can deliver enough energy to recharge a cell phone battery five times. It is 11 centimeters square and 2cm thick. Hitachi's measures 12cm by 7cm by 2cm and can power a phone for five hours.

Companies are looking at DMFC-based cell phone rechargers as one of the initial applications for the technology. Both NTT DoCoMo Inc. and KDDI Corp., Japan's No. 1 and No. 2 cell phone operators, have said they are working on DMFCs with partners.

They are also looking to build them into future miniaturized cell phones to replace the battery. Both companies have prototype DMFC-based cell phones on display. Toshiba's handset, which is similar in size to a conventional cell phone but about twice as thick, will run for about 2.5 times longer than a model powered by a lithium-ion rechargeable battery. Hitachi isn't providing specific details.

Toshiba is also showing several other devices with built-in fuel cells, including two hard-disk drive and flash memory-based music players and a laptop computer. Prototype computers are already in the hands of a number of testers, and the company is gathering data on their use. The DMFC looks similar to a laptop computer dock and is about the same size. It can power the machine for 10 hours.

But expect to wait a couple of years to see these in commercial PCs. After long promising to put fuel-cell based laptops on sale this year, both NEC Corp. and Toshiba said earlier this year that they are now shooting for 2007. It's not a technology problem, the two companies insist, but a regulatory one.

Currently, it is not permitted to carry methanol onboard aircraft, so passengers would be forced to leave their fuel cells at the airport's security checkpoint. If the fuel cell was integrated into the computer or cell phone, then the entire device might have to be confiscated every time travelers board a plane. International regulators estimate fuel cells won't be cleared for takeoff until 2007.

Other companies are also aiming at similar launch schedules. When IBM's Japanese unit and Sanyo Electric Co. said earlier this year that they are working together on DMFC technology, they predicted a 2007 or 2008 launch.

The bright side of the delay is that when the first fuel cells come to market, they should be smaller and more compact, thanks to two more years of development work.

Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.

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