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Membrane could rev up fuel cell industry

Start-up PolyFuel releases a membrane for creating fuel cells for laptops and cell phones, a milestone in the budding fuel cell industry.

Start-up PolyFuel has commercially released a membrane for creating fuel cells for laptops and cell phones, a milestone in the budding fuel cell industry.

The honeycombed membrane is for Direct Methanol Fuel Cells (DMFC). On one side of the membrane is a mixture of methanol and water. The methanol becomes attracted to the membrane through an electrical charge and reacts to a catalyst, which then releases electrons that power the host device. The byproducts are carbon dioxide and water. Fuel cells for cars rely on hydrogen, rather than methanol.

Several Japanese manufacturers, such as Toshiba, have announced plans to integrate fuel cells into their products. Originally, fuel-powered notebooks and handhelds were supposed to come out in 2004, but most companies have pushed back their plans to 2005.

The Department of Transportation also has approved the use of certain fuel cells in airplanes, because the diluted methanol can't readily ignite. Methanol curling irons, which some companies made in the 1980s, were legal on planes after all.

Thirty-five companies now have DMFC development programs, according to PolyFuel.

Government agencies, such as the Department of Homeland Security, also are looking at fuel cells to run surveillance cameras or sensors that are inconvenient to plug in, said PolyFuel CEO Jim Balcom.

Fuel cells won't likely replace batteries in notebooks rapidly, but will supplement them instead. Ideally, the cells will provide up to 10 or more hours of additional power. Intel, among others, has invested in the company, because demand for long-lasting notebooks is increasing faster than improvements are being made in battery chemistry.

Competitors include Neah Power Systems and large manufacturers such as Toshiba. Although PolyFuel has provided samples to large manufacturers, the company has not made its membranes generally available until now.

Mountain View, Calif.-based PolyFuel, which grew out of SRI International, does not make the entire fuel cell itself. Instead, it designs and sells the polymer membrane, an intricate sheet of plastic that contains platinum and other materials, to large manufacturers, which then build the units that deliver power. This is similar to how Gore-Tex is sold, according to Balcom. One company makes the waterproof material, and then coat and shoemakers incorporate it into their own products.