Start-up to show fuel cell at CES

Medis Technologies Inc., a U.S./Israeli start-up, is planning to unveil at next month's Consumer Electronics Show power packs that will be able to power or recharge portable electronics gadgets, it said this week.

The power packs are based on an alkaline fuel cell technology developed by the company and will be capable of providing, for example, several complete recharges for dead cell phone batteries or an additional 20 hours of talk time, said Robert Lifton, CEO of Medis.

The power pack is made up of two parts: a disposable fuel cell component and a connector cable. The fuel cell, which measures 80mm by 50mm by 35mm, will provide the raw power, while the connector cable will interface between it and the gadget being charged. Cables for different gadgets, fitted with the correct charging connector and voltage regulator, will be available, said Michelle Rush, a spokeswoman for the company.

Medis envisages that these will include cell phones, digital cameras, handheld devices, MP3 players and handheld video games like the PlayStation Portable and Nintendo DS. For an iPod music player, a single Medis fuel cell could keep the gadget running for about 80 hours, she said.

"In the case of the enterprise users, who may keep the product attached to a Pocket PC to keep the devices' battery continually full, they would get much longer [life], as they are only topping off the battery," she said. "Depending on usage, they could be free from the wall for up to six weeks."

Medis is planning to commercially launch the devices in the second half of 2006 as the back to school season begins in the U.S., Lifton said. At that time, they will be available in a small number of stores ahead of a major launch planned for 2007, according to the company's plans.

Mirroring these launch plans, initial production will begin on a semi-automated line in Israel. Medis plans to make about 100,000 fuel cells on the line in 2006 to enable the second-half launch and move toward mass manufacturing beginning in 2007, said Lifton. Mass production will be handled by Celestica Inc. at a plant in Ireland with a capacity of 1.5 million power packs per month.

In high volumes, the company anticipates the power packs will cost about $8 each to distributors. The end-user price will be slightly higher.

Medis has already lined up a number of distribution deals that should see the power packs appearing in retail stores, and it's talking with potential volume resellers, including cellular phone carriers. During 2005, the company said, it began working with major cell phone operators in the U.S and U.K. on trials of the technology. In addition, Medis is working with General Dynamics Corp. on producing versions of the power pack for military use.

Medis says its technology has advantages over the methanol or hydrogen-based fuel cell technologies being pursued by many major consumer electronics companies.

Existing fuel cell technology involves diluting methanol with water and then dripping into the fuel cell to generate electricity, said Lifton. That process requires micropumps and other components that are very difficult to make and use, he said.

"That's why after 20 years of development, there is no commercial fuel cell. People in our company came from a whole different direction. Instead of pumping and using moving parts, they came up with a method in which the materials do everything. The materials we use create all our electrochemical results," he said.

"It can be done very inexpensively. Our whole power pack in volume costs $4.50. The platinum alone in a existing fuel cell costs about $8," said Lifton.

Commercialization of methanol or hydrogen-based fuel cells is also difficult at present because both are potentially hazardous fuels and so their carriage onboard aircraft is currently heavily restricted. Medis' fuel cells can be carried on aircraft with no problem, the company said.

Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.

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