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Lilliputian readies fuel-cell gadget charger

Company raises more venture money to develop its butane-powered fuel-cell charger for consumer electronics. Can they displace rechargeable batteries?

Lilliputian Systems, a company developing butane-fueled energy storage for consumer electronics, said on Thursday that it has raised $28 million in additional funding.

The company, which was spun out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, also announced that Analog Devices' co-founder Ray Stata has joined its board and that it named Michael Umana chief financial officer.

Since its founding seven years ago, Lilluptian Systems has been quiet about its product development but has revealed a few more details in the past few weeks. Its financial backers, which include Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Atlas Ventures, and Rockport Capital, have put at least $88 million into the company.

The technology behind the company is a solid oxide fuel cell and a method for manufacturing chips embedded in its storage units.

The business plan is to make fuel cells and butane cartridges for running consumer electronics, like iPods, mobile phones, and laptops. The company claims that its system will able to pack five to ten times more energy than similarly sized batteries and be much lighter.

At a recent event on energy storage at MIT, the company's vice president of business development Mouli Ramani said the butane will be sold in sealed cartridges that will have identification chips, according to a report at Technology Review. That makes the cartridges approved for airline travel, he said.

The cartridges will go on sale in the middle of next year and will be sold for between $1 and $3. The fuel cell charger will cost about $200 at first, with the price expected to fall to $100 over time, according to the report. Lilliputian plans to supply the "generator chip" for chargers and reference designs for other storage companies to make chargers, the company said.

Fuel cell chargers for consumer electronics have been under development for years but there are still only a few products actually in use.

Medis Technologies released a portable fuel-cell charger last year that can be recycled. MTI Micro has developed methanol fuel cell chargers for some electronics, but it said last week that the company needs additional funding to commercialize the product.

PowerAir late last year released a gadget charger that uses a zinc solution. Meanwhile, consumer electronics giants including Toshiba and Sharp are working on fuel-cell charger products.

Liquid fuel cells have the potential to give gadget users a longer run time than batteries and provide portable back-up power. But they do require the availability of fuel cartridges which should be recycled to be considered an environmentally friendly choice. Portable fuel cells also face the challenge of displacing rechargeable batteries.