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Big tests for fuel cells coming in 2007

The technology is really around the corner, according to a CEO of one of the leading manufacturers.

SAN FRANCISCO--Next year fuel cells could take a significant step forward, according to a CEO of one of the leading manufacturers of the technology.

In 2007, the U.S. military will conduct field tests of hybrid power systems, which combine lithium ion batteries and methanol fuel cells, Peng Lim, CEO of MTI Micro Fuel Cells, said during an interview here Tuesday. The hybrid power systems will be squeezed into portable radar and other devices and will be tried out in remote sensors that pick up vibrations, sounds or movement in the field and radio the data back to headquarters.

In hybrid systems, the small lithium ion battery provides peak power while the fuel cell recharges the battery or runs the equipment when less power is required to run it. Fuel cells harvest the energy from chemical reactions and then provide that energy (in the form of electrons) to devices.

"Fuel cells will be there to refill your tank, and your tank will be lithium ion batteries," Lim said. "We will complement lithium ion. Over the next 10 years we could be a replacement."

MTI plans to deliver a round of fuel cell prototypes to Samsung at the end of the year to power cell phones and a second round of prototypes in the spring of 2007, he said. If all goes well, Samsung could potentially incorporate fuel cells into products. Generally, a product can go from prototype to shelves in around 18 months.

The U.S. Department of Transportation is also expected in 2007 to follow a recommendation that fuel cells containing 100 percent methanol be carried on flights. The department has already approved fuel cells that contain 24 percent methanol and 76 percent water, but those don't compete well against batteries.

Fuel cell proponents have missed several deadlines in the past. Hitachi said in late 2003 that it would have PDAs (personal digital assistants) running on fuel cells by 2005. Toshiba said in 2004 that its sleek fuel cell for MP3 players would be delayed from 2005 to 2006 and has yet to appear.

Part of the problem, Lim said, is that such things take time. "When you talk to a scientist, he thinks it's done when the prototype is done. But that's a long way from getting it to people like you and me," he said.

In the last several years, engineers have tweaked fuel cells and managed to make them more efficient than earlier prototypes.

Besides Samsung, MTI has inked a deal with Duracell, which will resell refill cartridges for MTI fuel cells under its own brand name. Working with a large consumer electronics manufacturer and a consumer goods company gives fuel cells an opportunity to get in front of people. Lim also sits on the board of advisers of Inventec, the contract manufacturer that produces portable devices for Apple Computer and others.

The good news is that demand for more power in portable devices continues to grow. Watching video or TV on cell phones consumes energy. Overall, fuel cells can provide more power in a limited space of volume than lithium ion batteries, say fuel cell advocates.

Lithium ion batteries in the lab can provide 0.4 to 0.5 watt/hours per cubic centimeter and about 0.25 watt/hours per cubic centimeter in everyday products, according to MTI. (A watt/hour is a measure of how much electricity will be produced over an hour.)

A cubic centimeter of methanol can provide 1.3 watt/hours. The methanol has to be contained in a fuel cell, of course. Thus, if the fuel cell housing--a plastic and metal device with a membrane that converts methanol into water, carbon dioxide and electrons--is 20 cubic centimeters and it holds 10 cubic centimeters of methanol, the resulting fuel cell will perform as well as 30 cubic centimeters of a lithium ion battery. Manufacturers, though, can get a better ratio between methanol and the actual physical fuel cell itself than that, Lim said, resulting in more energy per cubic centimeter.

For the military, there are other advantages as well. Battery packs weigh a lot and can't be discarded (for fear of environmental problems and the enemy figuring things out about your equipment). A portable battery pack taken on a 72-hour mission might weigh 24 pounds and take up nine liters of space. An equivalent fuel cell might weigh 9 pounds and consume four liters of space. On the way back from the mission, the weight is greatly reduced because the methanol has been consumed.

Battery manufacturers, however, aren't standing still. Some, such as Valence Technology, are working on lithium batteries that fit into large devices such as cars, while start-up PowerGenix says it has come up with a new generation of batteries for power tools. Cell phones and notebooks almost universally rely on lithium ion batteries.

An even bigger problem for fuel cells may lie in convincing customers. When the subject comes up on news sites or chat boards, the usual complaints and fears crop up. Will a methanol fuel cell blow up in my lap? What happens when I run out--will I be able to buy replacements or refills?

Lim says the answer is no on the first and yes on the second. If all goes well, 7-Eleven will sell refills right next to the breath mints and beef jerky. Those questions, though, will become less important when and if the performance gains can be demonstrated.

"You won't see the value of a fuel cell until you need to call your boss and you run out of batteries," he said.