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Fuel cells face challenge on way to mainstream

A report says fuel cells will power nearly 15 percent of laptops worldwide by 2012, but companies may need to prove that refueling and replacing the cartridges isn't too expensive.

Fuel cells will power nearly 15 percent of laptops worldwide by 2012, but their wider market acceptance may hinge on ironing out several service irritants, according to an ABI Research report issued Wednesday.

Fuel cells are tiny power packs that generate electricity through a chemical reaction between oxygen and a fuel such as hydrogen. First seen as a low-emissions energy alternative for motor vehicles, the cells have caught on with computing companies, which see them replacing lithium ion batteries in portable gadgets such as laptops and cell phones--the cells will, according to various industry players, initially last two to three times longer than batteries, eventually lasting 10 times longer.

Fuel cells could start appearing in limited use in notebooks and PDAs next year. Companies in Japan and the United States are expected go for a trial production of 2,000 units by 2005.

"Not everything is a bed of roses in the microfuel sector," Atakan Ozbek, director of energy research at ABI Research, said in a statement. But he added that it's hard to evaluate the sector, since "most information that comes from companies is not verifiable, due to the emerging nature of the technology."

To ensure mass market acceptance, companies may need to prove that refueling and replacing fuel cartridges isn't prohibitively expensive, ABI's report says.

Although U.S. firms demonstrated the technology's initial promise, Japanese companies have recently taken a considerable lead. Some of the companies that are active in fuel cell research are Hitachi and Toshiba.

The study said that although most of the companies have been secretly showing their working units to product vendors, no major vendor has yet signed on. If a commercial release is planned for next year, prototypes, along with efficient refueling mechanisms, should be out by the end of 2004.