Smaller, more powerful PC fuel cell is on the way

It could be on the market by 2006 at a price of about $90

A new fuel cell for notebook PCs, more compact and powerful than competing technologies, could be on the market in early 2006 at a price of around $90, its Japanese inventors said this week.

Materials and Energy Research Institute Tokyo Ltd. (Merit) is betting on direct borohydride fuel cell (DBFC) technology, which it sees as cheaper and more compact than the direct methanol fuel cell (DMFC) technology other Japanese companies are developing.

Fuel cells generate an electrical current from a chemical reaction between a hydrogen-containing fuel and oxygen. How much current a cell produces depends on a number of factors, including the exact chemical reaction involved and the area of the membrane that separates the fuel from the oxygen. The length of time the cell can produce power varies with the nature of the particular reaction and the amount of fuel stored in a reservoir.

Merit's technology is similar to DMFC products, but it has several significant advantages, said Seiji Suda, president of Merit.

As with DMFC fuel cells, Merit's fuel cell has an anode, a cathode and a membrane, but instead of using methanol as fuel, it uses a solution of sodium borohydride. Merit's fuel cells develop about four times more power for the same area of membrane than DMFC fuel cells do, Suda said.

"With DBFC, the anode is nickel alloy, which is very cheap, and the membrane is a conventional one. It's all very compact," he said.

Merit's fuel cell will measure 3.1 in. by 3.3 in. by about 0.1 in., and will be able to produce 20 watts of power, enough for a notebook PC, Suda said. "We also intend to stack five of the cells together and connect them in series so that they produce 100 watts. We'll have a working prototype that is suitable to demonstrate mass production for industry in the best case in four months," he said.

Commercial versions should be available in the first few months of 2006 and will cost around $90, he said.

Sodium borohydride dissolves in water at room temperature and is commonly used to bleach magazine and print paper. Dissolved in an alkaline solution at concentrations of up to 10%, it can be stored in cartridges shaped like a pen or a printer ink cartridge that would cost $1.40.

Merit is talking to two companies outside of Japan about producing fuel cells commercially, and it's negotiating with a number of distribution companies about providing the fuel cells to retail outlets. The company is confident it will sign contracts for cell manufacturing and fuel distribution before the end of the year, said Suda.

Several of Japan's largest consumer electronics companies have shown prototype DMFC fuel cells for notebook PCs and mobile phone chargers, but they have not announced prices for future commercial versions of their fuel cells.

Hitachi Ltd. demonstrated a notebook PC fuel cell earlier this month, and NEC Corp. last week showed a notebook PC fuel cell that resembled a notebook computer dock.

In August, NTT DoCoMo Inc. and Fujitsu Laboratories Ltd. announced a fuel cell for recharging cell phones, while Hitachi and Toshiba Corp. showed prototype phone-charger fuel cells earlier this month. Earlier this year, Toshiba announced a fuel cell for portable electronics applications.

Copyright © 2004 IDG Communications, Inc.

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