Fuel Cells Move Beyond Pure Hype
By Steve Wallage, Wed Sep 11 00:00:00 GMT 2002

A recent upsurge in fuel cell interest means that, before long, we may be asking where the nearest methanol stand is.


World environmental summits in Kyoto and Johannesburg, turbulence in the Middle East - it's a good time for the alternative energy market. A key element of this is fuel cells, which were subject to a lot of hype a couple of years ago. Now, the market is starting to mature accelerated by the global possibilities of fuel cell technologies, the constraints facing current mobile device battery technology, and a rush of new manufacturers entering the market.

Methanol Technology


Unlike the Lithium-ion (Li-ion) rechargeable battery currently used in mobile devices, fuel cells do not require battery replacement or recharging. Instead, they need refills of fuel such as hydrogen gas or liquid methanol in order to continue operating. The hydrogen in the fuel reacts with the oxygen in the air within the battery to produce water and electric current. This is a very simplistic definition and different fuel cell vendors offer variants on this approach. Whatever the technology, the user will need to make regular re-fills of the fuel using either a filled cartridge or something more akin to the petrol pump.

One main industry debate is whether to use hydrogen or methanol as the fuel. Hydrogen was initially more popular, but in the last year methanol has been the more widely suggested option. The two may be complementary with methanol better equipped for devices needing longer operating times. Part of the renewed interest in fuel cells for mobile devices has come from its growing popularity in other areas, particularly in the automobile market. Although this technology may have little overlap with the micro fuel cells in the mobile market, it will at the very least grow user, investor and industry acceptance and support. It will also increase the availability of methanol and hydrogen.

The interest in the automobile industry has particularly come from the US. In California, there is a timeframe for Zero Emission Vehicles (ZEVs). In New Jersey in August, a series of bills were introduced to promote cars using fuel cells, and other fuel cell-powered equipment, such as lawn mowers. General Motors has forecast the market for fuel cell vehicles to be 80 million units in the decade between 2010 and 2020. Ford has introduced the latest prototype of the Ford Focus Fuel Cell Vehicle (FCV). The car will be built in low-volume in 2004.

Other portable devices have also been trialled with fuel cells. Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems showed a fuel cell for a camcorder at CeBIT 2002 show. More recently, Casio Computer revealed a mockup of a notebook PC with a fuel cell. The new power pack only weighs about half as much as the previous Li-ion battery pack, and can drive the notebook for up to 20 hours. Constraints in Batteries

The battery market has gone through its own 'Moores Law' of performance doubling roughly every 18 months. In 1990, the industry used Nickel Cadmium batteries which had a charging time of 8 hours and an energy density (the standard industry measurement) of 40 Watt hours per kilogram(Wh/kg). Towards the end of the decade, the Li-ion battery was introduced and is widely used in mobile devices today. It has a typical charge time of 3 hours and specific energy of 150 Wh/kg. By comparison, fuel cells can offer charging times of a few seconds and a massive 1,000Wh/kg.

As a result, fuel cells could boost the span between battery recharges by up to ten times.

Vendors


The potential for fuel cells in mobile devices has spurred a large number of manufacturers, many of whom are new to the battery market. This has been led by Japanese vendors including Casio, Toshiba, Sony, NEC and Hitachi. They have been helped by Japan's Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry which will subsidize projects to develop fuel cells, and has also committed to help develop standards.

US investor interest has created an index of 'energy technology' companies. Leading the charge on the mobile fuel cell front is MTI Micro Fuel Cells which has developed an external fuel cell. It claims this is the smallest device currently available, and is in joint development with a mobile device manufacturer plan for commercial production in 2004. MTI has received funding from DuPont and a $4.7 million grant from the US Commerce Department's National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).

In Europe, the two leading companies are German - the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems (which will license the technology for commercialization) and startup Smart Fuel Cell. Smart Fuel Cell is targetting the notebook PC market as well as mobile devices, and forecasts it will produce at least 100,000 units in 2004.

Other major vendors in this market include Samsung and Motorola. The Samsung Advanced Institute has exhibited a mobile device with a fuel cell which is about the size of a credit card and is mounted on the rear of the device. Motorola Labs has developed a prototype for a PDA which measures 5cm x 5cm x 1cm.

Although large numbers of startups may enter this space as the potential grows, the mass market opportunity and economies of scale play into the hands of the global vendors. We are likely to see the more interesting startups acquired in the next few years.

Obstacles


Many of the obstacles to fuel cell technology still seem immense ranging from safety to reliability to cost. However, its important to remember how immature the technology still is, and the vast R&D investments being plowed into the area.

Yes, both hydrogen and methanol are flammable, both can emit high levels of heat, and neither work well in dry or extreme weather conditions. Researchers believe all of these issues can be overcome over the next two years. Equally, issues around miniaturization of technology and reliability should also be resolved.

Cost is the biggest issue, and not just the upfront price but the ongoing cost and availability of re-filling. Hydrogen and methanol are not expensive. The wonderfully named Methanol Institute in the US quotes the wholesale spot market price for methanol as $0.33 per gallon. The bigger cost is likely to be the packaging.

Fuel cell proponents believe that we will see methanol and hydrogen re-fills sold across retail outlets in much the same way as pre-paid cards. Another hypothesis is that companies will have large capacity tanks for employees to re-fill their mobiles (and potentially notebooks and other portable devices).

All of this is possible but depends on fuel cells being used in the mass market. The cost needs to be comparable to the Li-ion batteries, device vendors need to be convinced, and there must be a large potential market to attract retailers.

When and How


The key to take-up of fuel cells is when the technology has sufficiently evolved, and costs have fallen, to make it attractive to the device manufacturers. Part of the answer to this is the impact of having Li-ion batteries in ever faster and more powerful mobile devices. The US Commerce NIST department has forecast that 3G devices could last just 30 minutes without fuel cells. Thus, some fuel cell proponents believe that high-end mobile devices and PDAs will drive uptake, as device manufacturers look for competitive advantage.

However, if fuel cells are to reach their potential then they need to be quickly become a mass market. Users will not want to buy without it been easy and cheap to get re-fills. If all the technical issues are overcome, then we could all be searching for the next re-fill of methanol by 2005.

Steve Wallage works and writes for the451. Steve has more than 13 years of experience as a technology analyst specializing in telecommunications.