Hitachi and Toshiba unveil fuel cells

Hitachi and Toshiba have unveiled new fuel cell prototypes for a range of applications that could be commercialised as early as...

Hitachi and Toshiba have unveiled new fuel cell prototypes for a range of applications that could be commercialised as early as next year.

The prototypes are on display at Ceatec Japan 2004 and show that fuel cells could become a widely adopted supplementary power source to conventional lithium ion batteries, and could start replacing them in some applications after 2007.

As well as showing its prototype fuel cell for PDAs that it announced last December, Hitachi also unveiled a prototype laptop PC fuel cell and a fuel cell-based battery recharger for mobile phones, both of which will be available in 2006.

In addition, Hitachi will make a lithium ion battery replacement fuel cell that it will put on sale in 2007, said Mitsugu Nakabaru, senior engineer of Hitachi's fuel cell promotion and development group. All of the prototypes use direct methanol fuel cell (DMFC) technology.

The demonstration model PC fuel cell shown is designed to latch on the back of a laptop screen, and is about 25cm wide, 20cm long and between 1cm and 2cm thick. This includes a cartridge containing methanol that is diluted to a 20% to 30% concentration to produce power in the fuel cell. Hitachi is not disclosing the exact specifications, but the demonstration model weighs under 1kg, said Nakabaru.

The prototype is designed to provide at least five hours of continuous operation for even the most power-hungry laptops while they are running multiple applications, Nakabaru said.

The laptop version is nearly ready for commercialisation, but Hitachi is working to improve specifications, including developing the fuel cell's capability to use higher concentrations of methanol up to 40%, Nakabaru said. The company declined to discuss potential prices.

Hitachi's fuel cell for PDAs is on target for sale in the second half of 2005, Nakabaru said.

That prototype fuel cell is a cartridge type around 1cm in diameter and between 5cm and 6cm in length. Specifications for the commercial model "are about the same", he said.

Both Hitachi and Toshiba are showing prototype fuel cell-based lithium-ion battery supplementary power sources for mobile phones designed for KDDI, Japan's number-two carrier.

The number of major Japanese electronics companies that have announced fuel cell rechargers for this application currently stands at three.

Last week, NTT DoCoMo and Fujitsu Laboratories said they developed a prototype DMFC technology recharger for commercialisation in 2006.

That version is a cradle-type design that uses a thumb-sized cartridge containing 18 cubic cm of methanol at a concentration of 30% to provide an output of 5.4V at 700 milliamperes.

The commercial version will be able to provide enough power to charge a lithium ion battery three times, to provide about six-hours worth of continuous use, according to NTT DoCoMo.

The Hitachi and Toshiba prototypes are standalone boxes with cords that plug into KDDI mobile phones. Both designs will be available before the end of March 2006, said Youichi Iriuchijima, assistant manager of KDDI's IT development division.

Hitachi's fuel cell recharger is smaller than Toshiba's, but Toshiba's design will provide power for longer, Iriuchijima said.

The Hitachi version uses 46% methanol concentration fuel to provide 700 milliwatts and 3.5V, that is capable of providing at least five hours of supplemental power when a lithium ion battery is exhausted, Iriuchijima said.

The Toshiba prototype uses a 100% concentration methanol fuel that provides nearer 10 hours of power, he said.

Over the next few years, many of Japan's mobile phone makers will add power-hungry digital broadcast tuners to their mobile phone models. KDDI sees the fuel cell supplemental batteries as a useful way to reassure users that they will be able to watch TV on their mobile phones without worrying about the battery dying.

The fuel cells will be able to connect into all KDDI phone models, not just those made by Hitachi and Toshiba, he said.

Like Fujitsu, Hitachi is working towards commercialising a fuel cell that will replace the lithium ion battery completely, and this will be commercially available in 2007, said Hitachi's Nakabaru.

While Hitachi is not giving details about the battery version, the initial design will be between two and three times more bulky than conventional batteries, he said.

Paul Kallender writes for IDG News Service

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