March 23, 2006
 

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Posted: 05.04

Cell, Cell, Cell! Refueling the Industry

Are fuel cells poised to revolutionize mobile devices?
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By Phillip J. Britt




Fuel cells could begin augmenting or even replacing batteries in mobile devices as soon as the end of 2004, as mobile workers choose solutions that provide them with longer-lasting power.

Jim Balcom, CEO of PolyFuel in Mountain View, Calif., says that the 3G wireless phones already popular in Asia drain the typical lithium-ion battery in as little as 20 minutes. And laptops are increasingly using power-draining wireless modems that limit li-ion battery life.

Balcom adds that the li-ion battery is at or near its maximum efficiency for its size, and larger units would be too bulky of a solution. The portable energy need is so critical in Asia that an increasing number of public venues now offer battery- charging stations. But handheld users want to get away from the need to charge their devices as often as they do now.

“There needs to be a new approach to portable power,” Balcom says.
Battery manufacturers, handheld and laptop manufacturers and other companies are looking at fuel cells as the portable energy source of the near future. Fuel cells can be used either alone or in combination with li-ion batteries. PolyFuel produces a membrane that converts the fuel into electrical energy.

Fuel cells for portable devices use methanol as an energy source, rather than the hydrogen used for motor vehicles and other larger applications. Hydrogen is more expensive and difficult to store, Balcom explains. Methanol is readily available.

The fuel could be loaded via a disposable cartridge that is similar in size to a cigarette lighter. Balcom claims a methanol fuel cell will produce two- to four-times as much energy as a like-sized li-ion battery.

However, fuel cells aren’t available yet, nor are most devices expected to be able to use them. Target dates are late 2005 or early 2006. Numerous pilot programs are planned for next year, according to Balcom.

But Intermec Technologies in Everett, Wash., is claiming that it will begin marketing a fuel cell–powered handheld scanner for RFID tags by the end of 2004.

The company’s current scanners can barely go a day under normal use without recharging, says Denny Durbin, an Intermec engineer. The company is developing a device that will combine fuel cell and battery technology so that it won’t give out before the end of a day, particularly on heavy usage days.

Like Balcom, Durbin doesn’t expect additional fuel cell-capable devices to be available until 2005. Once portable fuel cells pass early-adoption tests, Balcom expects to see methanol cartridges readily available in consumer stores, much like alkaline and many li-ion batteries are today.•

—Phillip J. Britt
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