The Micro Fuel Cell
By Jeff Goldman, Mon Aug 04 13:00:00 GMT 2003

The more functionality a mobile device offers, the more power it's likely to consume, and lithium ion batteries can't keep up with the demand. But micro fuel cells will.

As you take photographs of your daughter's school play using your mobile phone, you notice the battery is running low. No problem. You simply snap the spent fuel cartridge out of the side of the phone, drop it in your pocket, and snap in a new one. Voila: another 20 hours of talk time.

A fantasy? Not really. With micro fuel cell technology currently being developed by dozens of manufacturers worldwide, this is only a few years away. By 2008, the research firm Frost & Sullivan predicts, as many as four million mobile devices will be powered by fuel cells.

The Mobile Power Crunch

Dr. William Acker, President and CEO of MTI MicroFuel Cells, says phone manufacturers are desperate for this kind of solution. "You have a situation now where DoCoMo can put out a 3G phone that has amazing properties, but the battery only lasts for 45 minutes," he said. "When you put a multifunction device out there, the battery life just isn't sufficient to meet consumers' requirements."

Micro fuel cells, Acker says, will also finally allow consumers to throw away their power cords. "OEMs in this space like to talk about 'completing the wireless revolution,' where instead of being tethered to the wall for four hours every night, you are truly wireless," he said. "So not only do you have a device that lasts longer between charges, but to recharge it, you're simply snapping in a cartridge."

As a result, most of the major electronics manufacturers are now exploring the potential of direct methanol fuel cells (DMFCs) for mobile devices. And they're making progress: within the last few months, both NEC and Toshiba have unveiled prototype fuel cells for laptop computers. By 2006, NEC plans to release a laptop with a built-in fuel cell that can run for 40 consecutive hours.

Technical Difficulties

Still, a number of hurdles remain. Most significantly, making a fuel cell small enough to fit inside a mobile phone is not an easy task. "Traditionally, a micro fuel cell system is a rather complex device," Acker said. "It has a number of pumps and valves and recirculation loops: you end up with something that looks like a miniature chemical plant, which obviously is very hard to miniaturize and put in your pocket."

Companies like PolyFuel, Neah Power Systems, Medis Technologies, and MTI MicroFuel Cells are exploring innovative ways of making fuel cells simpler, requiring fewer components and therefore making them easier to miniaturize. The membrane at the core of the fuel cell is a key area of innovation, as is the packaging of the fuel cell itself.

Another key hurdle is regulatory, not technical. Because fuel cells contain methanol, they currently can't be carried on airplanes, which would be a killer for any mobile device. Atakan Ozbek, Director of Energy Research for Allied Business Intelligence, says it will take at least two years to get the necessary codes and standards implemented worldwide.

A Growing Market

The fuel cell market will require the development of a parallel market in fuel cartridges, just like ink cartridges for a pen. For battery manufacturers, Ozbek says, those cartridges could present an attractive new opportunity. "Lithium ion batteries used to be a very profitable market, but in the last two years the competition has become so fierce that the manufacturers are not really making money," he said.

Jim Balcom, CEO of PolyFuel, points out that the cartridge market will likely develop in one of two ways: the fuel cartridges could be proprietary to each manufacturer, like printer cartridges, or could be standardized like current lithium ion batteries. "Fortunately, most of the people we're talking with prefer the standardized approach, which we think also serves the industry best," he said.

Over the next few years, the first product launches will be aimed at laptops and larger PDAs, with mobile phones to follow as miniaturization of fuel cells improves. One of the first products targeted at mobile phones is Medis Technologies' Power Pack, an auxiliary power supply that can be used to recharge a mobile phone or PDA: Medis says it hopes to release the Power Pack commercially by the end of 2004.

And last month, DoCoMo announced plans to launch a 3G handset powered by a fuel cell by 2005. As mobile phone functionality grows, Balcom says, the devices inevitably consume more and more power, and the demand for micro fuel cells increases. "Consumers are desperate for more run time in their wireless devices," he said. "This whole wireless revolution has really got to have a better power supply."

Jeff Goldman is a freelance writer covering business and technology issues for publications ranging from Wireless Business & Technology Magazine to Jupitermedia's ISP-Planet. Brought up in Belgium, Jeff spent the last decade in New York, Chicago and London; he now lives in Los Angeles.