Micro fuel cells to make gadgets goAlternative power source would replace rechargeable batteries
Sunday, September 22, 2002 Posted: 9:06 AM EDT (1306 GMT)
Micro fuel cells would power portable electronics without recharges and power outlets.
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    ALBANY, New York (AP) -- Cell phones free from nightly recharges. Laptop computers that run and run without needing an outlet. Pocket TVs with enough power to show a Ken Burns documentary.
    Portable gadgets are demanding more and more juice. A viable alternative to rechargeable batteries isn't here yet, but when it comes, it might work like the device about the size and weight of a deck of cards in William Acker's hand.
It's a micro fuel cell.
    The prototype created by Acker's company, MTI Micro Fuel Cells Inc., relies on a minute flow of methanol to generate electricity. MTI Micro aims to shrink the prototype and begin selling its first commercial fuel cell product in 2004.
    The idea is to tap into the ever-expanding personal electronics market and provide a power source for the millions of people talking, computing and checking e-mail on the go.
    MTI Micro is in a crowd of companies including Motorola and Casio trying to develop a commercial micro fuel cell.
    "The market application potential is huge," said Kelly Nash, an analyst with McDonald Investments Inc. "I'm sure you have had issues with your cell phone battery. I know I have."
    A fuel cell makes electricity in a chemical reaction. Larger fuel cells tend to rely on propane or natural gas. In the fuel cell being developed by MTI Micro, methanol is introduced to a catalyst to produce electrons, protons and carbon dioxide.
    The protons go through a membrane. Electrons, which cannot go through the membrane, instead flow through wires as electricity. The reaction's byproducts are a tiny amount of carbon dioxide and water -- about a drop a day, which evaporates away.
    Methanol is flammable, but company officials say the unit is safely sealed.
Thinking small
    Some hospitals, credit card processors and other businesses already use fuel cells. Residential units are being developed and prototype fuel cell cars are already rolling, although most automakers do not expect to mass market them before 2010.
    But those fuel cell units are big -- some the size of a washing machine, others as large as a trailer. Creating a fuel cell that can be stuffed into a pocket and jostled around has proved difficult.
    MTI Micro was created in 2001 as a subsidiary of Mechanical Technology Inc. to solve those problems. Based in Albany, MTI Micro has about 45 employees including president and chief executive officer Acker, who also is the parent company's president.
    The company has produced three progressively smaller working prototypes, the latest unveiled in August. Acker can power his combination cell phone/personal digital assistant with the prototype. But it's still too big to click on the back of the device.
    Engineers are working on packing the pieces of the fuel cell tighter. Acker said it's likely MTI Micro's first product will not be a direct replacement for batteries but rather a slightly larger accessory -- for instance, a portable charger.
Micro fuel cells are expected to get smaller.
    "In the long run, just about anywhere where high-end batteries are the right answer, these devices should be a better answer," Acker said.
    Micro fuel cells are supposed to have several advantages over rechargeable batteries. Once fully developed, micro fuel cells should last 10 times as long as the current generation of batteries, Acker said.
    And no more recharges. When a fuel cell runs out of methanol, just snap on a replacement fuel cartridge.
Also, fuel cells can provide more power.
    The potential for a lucrative market has drawn a mix of start-ups and big names.
    Nash cites Motorola, Toshiba and Casio, which has developed a fuel cell it intends to sell commercially in 2004.
    Smart Fuel Cell, a German company, recently introduced a device fueled by a 2.5 liter methanol cartridge that can be used with outdoor equipment.
    A recent analysis by Frost & Sullivan said the next generation of high-bandwidth mobile technology devices will likely require more power than current rechargeable batteries can provide.
    Already, so-called smartphones that combine cellular telephony with personal digital assistants are hobbled by the necessity to recharge them every day or so.
    According to the report: "Fuel cells for laptop computers and cellular phones definitely have one thing going for them that fuel cells for automobiles and stationary power plants do not: strong consumer demand."