Micro Possibilities

Micro Possibilities

Power-hungry portable devices fuel the drive to develop micro fuel cell technology.

Laptop computers that suddenly wink out as batteries run dry. Cell phones and PDAs whose portability no longer proves a benefit once the power drains away.

These challenges for consumers are driving immense interest in micro fuel cells, a technology whose promise has been discussed for years, but for which commercialization remains elusive.

"Current battery chemistries are struggling to satisfy the increasing power needs of portable electronic devices that are steadily becoming more high-performing," says Sara Bradford, power systems group director for consulting firm Frost & Sullivan. "This has shifted the focus to micro fuel cells as they offer an excellent alternative or extension to rechargeable batteries."

Frost & Sullivan has forecast that the world micro fuel cell industry will produce 72 million unit shipments by 2010, with that number quadrupling by 2013 as commercialization efforts ramp up. Industry players in this market include UltraCell Corp. and MTI MicroFuel Cells Inc., the latter of which is engaged in an alliance with Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd.

Toshiba's prototype DMFC runs on a methanol-oxygen fuel mix, and generates and supplies power directly to the PC.
Direct methanol fuel cells (DMFC) appear to be the "technology of choice" to power portable consumer portable devices, says Frost & Sullivan, due to their small footprint, weight, quiet operation and the minimal by-products produced. On the other hand, only 25% to 30% of the fuel mixture is converted to energy, with the remaining wasted through excess heat and phenomena such as "methanol crossover." "This issue is consistently being overcome and is only expected to be a short-term challenge," Bradford says.

She notes that other micro fuel cell types also are being developed, some which are showing efficiency rates close to 40% or more.

The Frost & Sullivan analyst points out an additional barrier to commercialization, one that impacts any emerging technology: a supply chain capable of meeting demand.

"In the micro fuel cell industry, in particular, materials play a crucial role, and any shortage or delay in obtaining the same can delay emerging technology commercialization," she says.

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