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Fuel cell firm's neat solution for batteries

MTI Micro's fuel cells use 100 percent methanol to generate electricity, for a longer-lasting power pack. Time to say goodbye to batteries?

A developer of miniaturized fuel cells has come up with a simplified design that could propel the power technology's use in notebook and handheld computers.

On Monday, MTI MicroFuel Cells unveiled prototypes of its Mobion power packs, which promise to last longer in portable devices than conventional batteries and to be easier to manufacture than rival fuel cells.

Direct methanol fuel cells produce electricity by breaking down methanol. The methanol interacts with a catalytic membrane and produces electricity, carbon dioxide and water as byproducts. The technology is drawing attention from computing companies--especially makers of devices such as handheld computers, cell phones and laptops--to complement and possibly replace lithium ion batteries.

MTI Micro claims its technology differs from that of its rivals in that water is not pumped into the methanol tank. "We have 100 percent fuel in the reservoir," said Shimshon Gottesfeld, the company's chief technology officer. Some fuel cells take the water that emerges as a byproduct of the fuel cell reaction and remix it with the methanol.

The Mobion design leads to two potential design advantages. Firstly, the fuel cells do not need water pumps, leading to a reduction in the size and complexity of the pack. Secondly, the fuel cells have a higher energy density. The fuel reservoirs in many fuel cells contain less than 25 percent methanol. A greater concentration of methanol means devices can run longer.

The use of highly concentrated methanol does lead to other problems, though. The Federal Aviation Administration has ruled that flight passengers can't carry fuel cells that have a methanol concentration higher than 24 percent. Alan Soucy, the chief operating officer of MTI Micro, said the company is working on getting the regulations modified.

Several start-ups are working on fuel cells to power laptops, phones and handhelds. Fuel cells will initially complement batteries, but over time could begin to displace them because, potentially, fuel cells can power portable devices for two to ten times longer than conventional batteries.

Japanese manufacturers such as Sharp and NEC have been some of the strongest proponents of fuel cells. Although the first fuel cell-powered devices have been delayed, some are expected to hit the market next year.

MTI Micro plans to first target the industrial market, providing power cells for remote sensing devices such as RFID readers, and supplying the military. Later, it hopes to move into the consumer electronics market.

The company, based in Albany, N.Y., is working with DuPont, Flextronics and others to bring its cells to market.