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PolyFuel to demo methanol fuel cell laptop

Company converts a laptop to run with a direct methanol fuel cell, a technology that some consumer electronics makers are showing interest in.

Powering a laptop with a portable liquid fuel is getting closer to reality. But don't expect to buy one for your next birthday.

PolyFuel, a company that develops fuel cell membranes, said Wednesday it has developed a prototype laptop--a Lenovo T40 ThinkPad--that uses methanol cartridges and a fuel cell as a power source.

The company intends to show it off to consumer electronics and PC manufacturers in the coming weeks. PolyFuel, which was spun out of what is now called SRI International, has about 19 customers, including NEC and Sanyo.

The functioning prototype is a proof of concept, rather than a finished product. The methanol cartridges, which are about the size of a deck of cards, can be replaced without having to power down the machine.

The prototype uses a direct methanol fuel cell (DMFC) that converts methanol, also known as wood or methyl alcohol, to electricity to run the laptop. A single cartridge can provide 10 hours of battery life.

PolyFuel declined to provide an image of the prototype, but company President and CEO Jim Balcom described it to me.

He said the fuel cell power supply bulges out slightly more than the larger nine-cell battery on a Lenovo T40. It also raises the laptop a bit.

Despite the slightly larger size, Balcom said laptop manufacturers were keenly interested in the last prototype, because one power supply would provide as much run-time as about three lithium-ion batteries and would be substantially lighter.

PolyFuel's strategy is to license its system design and to sell its membrane technology to manufacturers.

A number of consumer electronics makers have announced product development efforts on direct methanol fuel cells.

The advantage of direct methanol fuel cells is that the cartridges are portable and can provide longer running time, say backers.

MTI MicroFuel Cells, another direct methanol fuel cell company, said last week that its Mobion fuel cell lasted 2,700 continuous hours, hitting a Department of Energy target set for fuel-cell funding.

Manufacturers are keen to find ways to extend battery life so they can add more features to portable devices. Also, replaceable methanol cartridges would let people go all day without lugging around an AC adapter.

The U.S. Department of Transportation last year approved the transport of methanol fuel cells on airplanes, according to MTI and the Methanol Institute.

Then again, portable electronics powered by alternative fuels have been promised for years without any commercial products.

One of the main reasons is because the science for direct methanol fuel cells is quite difficult, particularly to make devices small enough, according to Balcom.

He said manufacturers estimate that these devices could fuel between 10 percent and 30 percent of laptops. Ten percent of laptops could be considered a niche market yet is still significant in size.

"We've never been on of the opinion that fuel cells are going to replace batteries wholesale. (Batteries) are great if you need a couple of hours," Balcom said.

He said that initial commercialization of fuel cell consumer electronics in two to three years is feasible.

"It's not a question of if, it's a question of when" fuel cells are used in devices, he said. "It's difficult to predict because the science is so challenging."