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Toshiba to showcase fuel cell prototype

The company next week plans to exhibit a battery alternative that it said has the potential to replace environmentally taxing, rechargeable batteries with clean-energy technology.

Toshiba next week plans to exhibit a fuel cell prototype that it said has the potential to replace environmentally taxing, rechargeable batteries with clean-energy technology.

The Japanese electronics company, which ranks among the top notebook makers, said it would present direct methanol fuel cell (DMFC) technology for portable computers that can provide about five hours of power with a single cartridge of fuel.

The new fuel cell, about 275 millimeters by 75 millimeters by 40 millimeters (about 11 inches by 3 inches by 1.5 inches), provides an instant power supply for a significant amount of time using replaceable methanol cartridges, the company said.

Toshiba's prototype is unlikely to have much of an impact on the fuel sector in the near-term, according to analysts.

"You should not expect anything until the end of 2004, and shipments will most likely be in small units," said Atakan Ozbek, director of energy research at market researcher Allied Business Intelligence.

But with the leading power technologies having only another 15 percent to 25 percent room for improvement through chemistry, "fuel cells seem like the only promising technology for more efficient portable power source," Ozbek said.

Toshiba, which will showcase the prototype at the CeBit technology show in Hannover, Germany, next week, said it would continue to develop the DFMC technology and hopes to commercialize it next year.

The consumer electronics industry is rushing to find ways to replace the nickel cadmium batteries and lithium ion batteries that today power most portable electronic devices. The drawback to existing power technologies is that they will inevitably hit a barrier, as faster processors, higher-resolution displays and other advances increase the overall demand for power.

A vast and varied body of research on fuel cells is emerging from university and corporate labs. Some researchers are working on developing more-efficient solar cells; others are looking to harness the energy stored in radioactive material. Hoping to make it easier to manufacture fuel cells, one start-up said it had developed a way to make them out of silicon.

Fuel cell technologies face several hurdles before they can garner widespread adoption--problems, for example, with delivering the fuel, miniaturization and the cost of the materials needed to build efficient fuel cells.

But as commercial fuel cells become a reality, the computer industry is likely to dramatically alter notebooks and cell phones, making them smaller but more powerful. New power technologies could extend the life of laptops more than two to three times as much as current batteries can.

Toshiba said it dealt with the problem of miniaturization by altering how the methanol is diluted with water to achieve the optimal concentration to power the cells. Methanol, the company said, delivers power most efficiently when it is mixed with water in a 3 percent to 6 percent methanol concentration. Storing the fuel at that concentration requires a tank that is too large for mobile devices.

The company said it overcame this problem by developing a system for methanol to be diluted by the water produced as a by-product of the power-generation process, which allows the methanol to be stored at a much higher concentration and in smaller fuel tanks.

Other enhancements that were required to shrink the fuel cell include: sensors to monitor methanol concentration and liquid levels, new material that allows smaller cells to be stacked atop one another, and having the computer provide information on its operating status to the fuel cell in order to balance supply and power demands.