While Nokia recently announced it was discontinuing support for its fuel cell development project, IBM and partner Sanyo Electric this week revealed plans for a prototype micro direct methanol fuel cell system for IBM’s ThinkPad line of notebooks. Based on the prototype, the team believes the hybrid fuel cell and a rechargeable battery system could run a notebook for up to eight hours.
Unlike other prototypes that would require product modification to be fuel cell compatible, the IBM/Sanyo system is designed to be compatible with most current ThinkPad models. Built like a dock, users could simply plug the fuel cell pack into where the ac/dc brick adaptor plugs into the ThinkPad; when the cell, is empty you pull it out, insert a new one and refill the empty.
Howard Locker, chief architect for desktop and mobile development at IBM's personal-computing division, believes two things need to happen though before this technology becomes commercially available. The first, says Locker, “is the infrastructure needs to be established where you can buy rechargeable fuel packs. And the other key is for people to put the infrastructure in, there has to be demand for it.” Locker believes that the eight hours is a breakthrough around this technology, but to convince the general public to buy into the solution 24 or 32 hour charges would have to be met.
The current technology demonstration does lend itself to some particular applications, such as military use. Locker explains, “There are no electrical plugs in the military operations field, [with this fuel cell system] you could power a laptop in the field, without any need for electricity. And you can bring into the field 50 packs and run for eight weeks.”
As far as commercial viability, Locker says IBM is committed to exploring the viability of fuel cells, “We’re about innovation, and so we’re going to keep on investigating this space and investing in it because it has potential.” But he’s also realistic about what needs to be done to make fuel cells market-ready, explaining, “We also won’t bring it out as a product until it makes sense from a customer viewpoint.”
As far as IBM’s commitment to working with Sanyo, Peter Hortensius, VP of IBM’s personal computing division, says, “There are a number of vendors developing fuel cell battery prototypes for PCs and mobile devices, but the combination of IBM's notebooks and Sanyo's leadership position in [fuel cell] technology, will accelerate research and development in the field.”