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It's OK to carry fuel cells in carry-on bags, U.S. government says

Shoe bomber Richard Reid might be stopped at the gate, but it will be all right for the rest of you to carry methanol fuel cells on a plane.

The U.S. Department of Transportation issued a ruling today that will let passengers carry approved methanol fuel cells and up to two spare fuel cartridges in their carry-on bags.

Peng Lim and a fuel cell. Methanol goes in. Water, CO2, and electrons come out. Hanna Sistek, CNET Networks

Since fuel cells for phones and other devices won't likely hit the market until next year, the ruling technically doesn't affect anyone. That is, except for people like Peng Lim, CEO of MTI Micro Fuel Cells, who travels the country showing off prototypes of fuel cells for cameras and phones. (Peng's got a great collection of toys. See video here.)

Still, the ruling helps clear the way for the industry and consumer acceptance. Fuel cells extract electrons from a reaction between methanol, ambient oxygen, and a catalytic membrane. Fuel cell makers hope to replace lithium-ion batteries as a power source in portable electronics. One advantage: no recharging time. Refueling a fuel cell only requires popping in a new fuel canister. A universal charger made from a fuel cell can charge notebooks, phones, MP3 players, and other devices, cutting down the number of chargers travelers have to carry.

Fuel cells also can't spontaneously burst into flames. A person would have to apply a flame to a fuel cell to ignite methanol, which is an alcohol. Presumably, security will take lighters and matches away from someone at the gate. Lithium-ion batteries in rare instances have blown up, but those instances have been alarming.

Fuel cell technology, though, isn't easy and fuel cells have faced several delays. Lim says fuel cells will likely begin to come out in 2009. MTI is working with Samsung on fuel cells for phones.

Canada, China, Japan, and the UK already let passengers carry their nonexistent fuel cells onboard.