Fuel cells still years away for mobile devices

While fuel cell manufacturers have long fought to consumerise the technology, they're finally finding success in niche professional markets.

It was only a few years ago that fuel cells were the next big thing, always just around the corner. Today, even some of their hardiest proponents admit it will be years, if ever, before mobile devices ditch batteries for fuel cells.

Brent McKendry, CEO of Taipei, Taiwan-based fuel cell manufacturer Antig, has every incentive for fuel cells to succeed: Antig is one of the leading manufacturers of the technology and has even developed some of the leading small-form-factor fuel cell equipment.

Despite this, years of experience have tempered his optimism that fuel cells will replace mobile device batteries anytime soon.

"Will it ever be a viable consumer product?" McKendry asked. "I don't know. Technically, it's possible, but batteries are very good."

That's a grim prognosis given the amount of hype once poured on the technology. Such headlines as "Mobile Phone Fuel Cells Coming in 2007" and " Membrane could rev up fuel cell industry" were common over the past few years.

"In 2005, we were one of the companies saying it's just around the corner," he said. "We had to bite the bullet … and face the reality."

That reality wasn't pretty.

Although fuel cells could, on paper, last ten times as long as batteries, in practice they only doubled talk time while offering an inconsistent charge, all at a much steeper price.

Meanwhile, the main competition for fuel cells, lithium-ion, kept improving. No longer did the batteries burst into flames on unsuspecting laps, even as the technology evolved to last longer.

Part of the solution was, however, external to the power source entirely.

Tina Teng, an analyst with iSuppli, said mobile manufacturers were more conscious of battery life and focused on improving device efficiency instead of battery life.

"I see a lot of investment in chipset development," she said. "If users know how to manage their phones, like turning off the Bluetooth radio, then battery life can be improved a lot."

At one point, iSuppli had projected 12 million devices fuelled by power cells in 2009, but that forecast has been pushed back at least a year, even as iSuppli has stopped seriously tracking the technology in the mobile sphere.

"There [just wasn't] any more news coming out," Teng said. The last iSuppli report that covered fuel cells in mobile devices was published in late 2005.

Antig and other manufacturers have had to realign themselves a number of times over the years, and today some have found success in niche markets.

While most phones still use lithium ion batteries, fuel cells are now common in backup power systems and with outdoor enthusiasts looking to tote electricity into the wild.

"The RV market is one of the largest markets right now for fuel cells," McKendry said.

Antig also has a booming business with professional videographers who need the ability to pop in a new charge on the go without carrying extra bulky batteries.

Research continues into slimming down the fuel cell form factor while cutting prices, and device manufacturers continue to show interest.

Teng said she had talked to several manufacturers that were keeping tabs on the technology, first for use in laptops but with an eye to personal media players and, eventually, cell phones. Today, several manufacturers produce ride-along fuel cells used to recharge laptop batteries on the go.

"Certainly, by 2010 you'll see small devices in the marketplace for professional use, and people will talk about them more," McKendry said. "That means a mainstream [consumer] product is right around the corner."

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