by Elinor Mills Abreu, Reuters — Fuel cells that can run laptops for 10 hours or more without plug power have captured the imagination of computer junkies. But first, backers must prove that they are as safe to fly with as a cigarette lighter or a duty-free bottle of vodka.
Japanese companies are pushing ahead with prototypes of miniaturized fuel cell technology that use methanol to create power, even though experts say limited-life batteries are here to stay for several more years.
Methanol, a type of alcohol, is flammable, but fuel cells typically use less than 24 percent methanol in water, said John Goodman, president of the fuel cell division at Entegris, which makes fuel cell components.
“The issue isn’t ‘Are flammable liquids safe on an aircraft?’ They already are allowed with liquor and perfume,” said Goodman.
Fuel cell-powered laptop prototypes have been developed by Toshiba 6502.T and NEC 6701.T , who plan to start selling them as full-fledged products next year. Casio 6952.T , Sony 6758.T and Hitachi 6501.T and Samsung 00830.KS of Korea are also working on micro fuel cell technology.
Goodman predicts that, in a matter of years, fuel cell batteries no bigger than a cigarette lighter will run for 10 hours or more before being replaced.
“After about 10 hours of operation, you will pop out a fuel cell cartridge about the size of a Bic lighter or inkjet cartridge” and put in a fresh one, he said.
“Now I travel to Europe and I can’t even watch a movie before my battery runs out on my laptop,” Goodman said.
Fuel cells work by converting hydrogen found in methanol into electricity through an electro-chemical reaction. No recharging is needed, just a refill of fuel.
Chipmaker Intel Corp. INTC.O in February demonstrated a laptop operated by a prototype of a fuel cell made by PolyFuel, a company in which it has invested.
“With the advent of wireless, we need to get people off the grid as far as the power, so you don’t have to plug in,” said Mike Rocke, a director at Intel Capital, the chipmaker’s capital investment arm.
Typical laptop batteries last from three hours to five hours, while fuel cells are aiming for between six to eight hours, and eventually 12 hours, said Atakan Ozbek, director of energy research at research firm Allied Business Intelligence.
Prices are expected to run about $200 initially for a fuel-cell battery, compared with anywhere from $120 to $180 for traditional laptop batteries used in the most powerful notebooks, he said. Micro fuel cells will initially serve as back-up power for batteries, before replacing them entirely later, he added.
Experts believe that laptops will likely be the first mass market for fuel cell technology. Shrinking the power packs enough to fit into cell phones will take longer to develop. For cars and power stations, there are huge infrastructure issues to resolve before fuel cells are widely used there.
“Laptops are moving to fuel cells because, currently, it is frustrating for someone to have to wait eight hours to recharge a battery or carry around heavy replacement batteries,” said Bernadette Geyer, marketing director at the U.S. Fuel Cell Council in Washington, D.C.
Add to this the growth of computational intensive applications on laptops and handheld computers that can run down current batteries quickly.
“Notebook manufacturers want to add features to their notebooks that will require more power and they don’t want to shorten battery life,” said Barbara Heydorn, senior consultant of SRI Consulting Business Intelligence.
Companies are working to make fuel cells small enough to fit into a notebook computer and capable of performing well in extreme climates. While they are surmounting the technological hurdles, the regulatory obstacle remains, experts said.
“There need to be regulations that allow a methanol cartridge to be transported in the same way that a lighter with butane fuel is transported onto airplanes,” said Jim Balcom, president and chief executive of PolyFuel, which makes membranes, or core components, for portable fuel cells.
The standards and regulatory process could take as long as two years, according to Ozbek of Allied Business Intelligence.
Allied Business predicts there will be only a paltry 2,000 laptops with “micro” fuel cells shipped worldwide in 2004.
Four years later, that could spiral upward to 1 million fuel cell laptops and $150 million in revenue, growing to 120 million laptops and $1.2 billion by 2011, the firm predicts.
Big U.S. laptop makers are taking a wait-and-see approach.
“It is still several years off for fuel cells being a practical solution for standard notebooks,” Dell DELL.O spokesman Jess Blackburn said, a view echoed by IBM as well. EDD