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Fuel cell offers 14 hours of laptop power

Start-up UltraCell plans to sell consumer fuel cells for less than $500 beginning in 2007. Photo: UltraCell's prototype

SAN FRANCISCO--A start-up called UltraCell is showing a 2.2-pound fuel cell prototype at the Intel Developer Forum that can power a laptop computer for 14 hours.

Production models will be available in 2007 and cost less than $500, William Hill, vice president of marketing at the 50-person Livermore, Calif.-based company, said in an interview Wednesday at the chipmaker's twice-annual show here.

Fuel cells convert hydrogen and oxygen into water and electrical power, but technology and expense have kept them away from most markets. However, many researchers are working to adapt the technology for cars, mobile phones and numerous other markets.

UltraCell's systems are fueled by methanol, and included technology called a reformer converts it into hydrogen the fuel cell itself can use, Hill said. But customers shouldn't expect to just be able to buy a few liters of methanol and fill up their fuel cells whenever they run low.

Instead, UltraCell will sell fuel cartridges for less than $4, Hill said. The cartridges can be recycled.

Intel is working to address power source issues for laptops and other mobile devices, but is cautious about fuel cells.

The chipmaker and its partners in the Mobile PC Extended Battery Life Working Group don't expect to see fuel cells in notebooks anytime soon, said Kamal Shah, Intel's representative with the EBLWG. Numerous challenges, such as distribution and regulatory hurdles, will need to be cleared before fuel cells become a reality for most mainstream notebook users, and Intel isn't expecting that to happen this decade, he said.

Hill said one regulatory hurdle has been cleared, however: approval to use the cartridges on airline flights.

CNET News.com's Tom Krazit contributed to this report.