Multi-fuel fuel cell prototype coming next year

Fuel cell designer Enerage will show off a prototype in the first quarter next year of a 25 watt fuel cell that can fit into the space of a battery pack in a notebook.

The company has showed off an earlier prototype, but the battery pack-sized device brings fuel cells slightly closer to reality. Different companies have touted fuel cells for years, but the commercial release has been delayed several times.

But the real unique thing about Enerage's fuel cell is its variability. It can be filled with methane, butane, methanol, ethanol, or other hydrocarbons, according to CEO Mark Wu. Most fuel cells for portable electronics come with a membrane designed to generate electricity out of methanol, but not necessarily other hydrocarbons.

The difference lay in the membrane and design of the fuel cell. Enerage's fuel cell is a direct oxidation fuel cell. It mixes air with a hydrocarbon. When the materials come in contact with the membrane, electrons are released. The reaction also results in byproducts like water and CO2. It can use different source fuels because the fuel cell (and nozzle on the fuel tank) can adjust the mixture of air and fuel. If a methane fuel tank is clicked onto the fuel cell, a different amount of air will be mixed in than if ethanol were used, for instance.

Enerage, however, does have one major engineering issue to conquer. The temperature inside the fuel cell can go up to 500 to 600 degrees Celsius. That's not going to go over big with notebook consumers.

Wu, though, said containing the heat and bringing down the temperature is an engineering challenge that the company can overcome.

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