Fuel cell coming to a handheld near you

It may be years before your car is powered by a fuel cell, but your handheld computer will not have to wait too long if engineers...

It may be years before your car is powered by a fuel cell, but your handheld computer will not have to wait too long if engineers at MTI MicroFuel Cells have their way.

MTI Micro yesterday unveiled the latest prototype of its direct methanol fuel cell, a power supply that is about the size of a deck of playing cards and promises to let handheld computers, cell phones and other small computing devices work away from a power outlet for about ten times as long as they can today, according to MTI Micro chief executive officer, Bill Acker.

Scheduled for release in 2004, the portable power supply has been designed to recharge mobile phones and handheld computers, in place of an electrical outlet.

As the latest prototype of MTI Micro's fuel cell only generates power, it requires a companion battery to deliver capacity to a device. "In order to go to market, the initial entry point will be an auxiliary accessory device," Acker explained.

The company is working with device manufacturers to create versions of the power supply that can be plugged into a device to recharge a current lithium-ion battery or act as an alternative power source.

It has not yet announced any specific partnerships, though company officials demonstrated the latest prototype working with a converged phone-Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) from Samsung.

Future versions of MTI Micro's technology will be combined with a small battery to allow the pack to replace the lithium-ion battery and be fully contained in the device, Acker said.

The power supply, developed at MTI Micro, makes energy out of methanol fuel. When it runs out, all a user has to do is insert a new fuel cartridge, which is about the same size as the cartridge in a fountain pen.

The direct methanol fuel cell follows a different formula from similar technology being designed to power automobiles and homes, which make use of a technology known as a Proton Exchange Membrane (PEM) fuel cell.

PEM fuel cell devices follow a more complex process and typically operate at higher temperatures than direct methanol fuel cells.

The direct methanol fuel cell was originally developed at Los Alamos National Laboratory. MTI Micro has licensed that technology and hired as its chief technology officer Shimshon Gottesfeld, who led the fuel cell research at Los Alamos for nearly 15 years.

In its own development of a direct methanol fuel cell, MTI Micro has devised a number of methods for making the power supplies more portable. For one, the design does not pump water through the inner cells, as is the case with the design originally developed at Los Alamos.

Fuel cells that do use water pumps require the power source to always be positioned upright, whereas MTI Micro's design will work in any orientation.

Casio Computer has also developed a fuel cell power pack for a laptop computer that will be about the size of a large conventional laptop battery when it is ready for release in the next two years.

MTI Micro is designing its fuel cell system to be cheap enough for the mass market. The company does not yet have a target price for its product but it should be competitive with lithium-ion batteries.

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