Hitachi to squeeze fuel cell into PDAs

The electronics giant is teaming up with a maker of disposable cigarette lighters to make methanol fuel cartridges for handheld computers.

Japanese electronics giant Hitachi is teaming up with Tokai, a maker of disposable cigarette lighters, to produce commercial fuel cells for handheld computers in 2005, the companies said this week.

Several electronics companies are investigating fuel cells as an alternative to existing nickel cadmium batteries and lithium ion batteries, which will inevitably hit a barrier when portable devices become more power-hungry. Fuel cells, just one of the alternative techniques under investigation, could create a long-lasting and cheap power source in a small package.

Fuel cells generate electricity through a chemical reaction between oxygen and a fuel such as hydrogen or methanol. The cells continue to produce electricity as long there is fuel. Hitachi, Toshiba, NEC and NTT DoCoMo have all announced plans to sell methanol-powered devices.

Hitachi and Tokai said they have created a prototype cartridge about the size of an AA battery that holds 5 cubic centimeters of methanol at a 20 percent concentration. It could power a PDA for six to eight hours, the companies said. They are planning to raise the concentration to 30 percent by the time mass production begins, which would increase cell life.

Toshiba originally planned to produce a fuel cell in 2004, but delayed its plans by a year. In October, the company said it had created a product that is capable of providing approximately 20 hours of operation, using a 25 cubic centimeter fuel cartridge.

Toshiba demonstrated a prototype fuel cell at this year's CeBit electronics show in Germany, while NEC and Hitachi showed prototypes at the Nano Tech 2003 show in Japan.

Toshiba is designing its fuel cell as a handheld charger for batteries in mobile devices. The prototype demonstrated by NEC earlier this year was said to be able to power a notebook for five hours. NEC said it was planning to develop and sell a 40-hour unit by the end of 2005.

Fuel cells must overcome issues such as water management, volumetric energy density, and packaging before they can become widely used, according to technology research firm Allied Business Intelligence (ABI).

An ABI study concluded that micro fuel cells are more likely to be developed for high-end products that have ample space, such as notebooks, and for specific niche markets, such as industrial mobile computing. The firm projected that the first 5,000 units of commercial micro fuel cell products in laptops and in niche markets will appear in 2004 to 2005, with global shipments to reach 200 million units in 2011.

ZDNet UK's Matthew Broersma reported from London. ZDNet UK's Munir Kotadia and CNETAsia staff contributed to this report.

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