A United Nations committee meeting next week will decide whether to allow cartridges containing methanol on commercial aircraft. A positive decision is vital to the commercial success of a new breed of long-life fuel cells in portable PCs.
Because they can power a laptop PC for between five and 20 hours, direct methanol fuel cells (DMFCs) would be particularly useful for passengers on long-haul flights. But passengers are currently forbidden to take cartridges containing methanol - which is flammable - on aircraft as a carry-on item.
The rule is one factor that decided NEC to move back the commercialisation schedule for its first DMFC-powered laptop from this year to 2007.
Jean Abouchaar, director of the International Air Transport Association (IATA), said a UN committee was due to meet from 29 November to 7 December in Geneva to decide on whether passengers should be allowed to bring methanol cartridges onto aircraft.
If the committee agrees, it will set in motion a series of required rule changes by the International Civil Aviation Organization that should see methanol cartridges allowed on aircraft from 1 January 2007. Otherwise, the process could be stalled for a further two years, according to Abouchaar.
"The UN does not issue mandatory regulations, but its recommendation means that transportation authorities can go ahead," he said.
The meeting could also help determine the fuel cell commercialisation plans of Fujitsu, Hitachi, Samsung and Toshiba, all of which are developing DMFCs.
Toshiba and Hitachi have said they think a mass market for DMFCs will emerge when PC users can carry methanol cartridges onto planes.
"We don't think the IATA is against methanol," said Toshiba spokeswoman Midori Suzuki. "It's just that it will take some time to go through the bureaucratic process."
ABI Research analyst Atakan Ozbek said that because many companies had not adequately considered legal regulations and the time taken to implement changes, they might have fuel cells ready for the market before the law changed.
"Regulators appear to be aware of the urgency of the matter. Everyone realizes the importance of classifying it as soon as possible," Abouchaar said.
DMFCs generate electrical power by mixing methanol with air and water.
Paul Kallender writes for IDG News Service. Grant Gross also contributed to this story.