Notebooks squeeze juice out of fuel cells

Wireless USB and technology that harvests unused electricity in computers are among other innovations at Intel conference. Photos: Chip tech takes new shapes

Michael Kanellos Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.
Michael Kanellos
3 min read
SAN FRANCISCO--Though a number of companies have shown off fuel cells for cell phones and MP3 players, a company out of New Jersey says it has come up with one that can power a notebook.

Millennium Cell is showing off a fuel cell at the Intel Developer Forum that it says can run a notebook for eight hours. The company's goal is to produce fuel cells for notebook manufacturers by 2007.

Chip tech takes new shapes

Fuel cells are tiny power packs that generate electricity through a chemical reaction between oxygen and a fuel such as methanol. Unlike most other fuel cells, this one doesn't rely on methanol. Instead, it extracts hydrogen from a metal-hydrogen compound (in the prototype, it's sodium hydride). Methanol provides less energy than hydrogen--which is why most developers are aiming fuel cells at low-energy devices like MP3 players--but it is easier to store.

Millennium Cell gets around the hydrogen production and storage problem with a plastic box, measuring 3 inches by 5 inches by 1 inch, that sits alongside the notebook. This box converts the metallic hydride into hydrogen. Ultimately, this unit will be capable of being integrated into notebooks.

The hydrogen is piped through a large membrane in the back of the notebook's screen. This powers the notebook and leaves water as a byproduct. (The plastic box contains the metallic residue from the earlier reaction.)

"There are no pumps or blowers," said Greg Smith, director of product management at the company. The fuel cell now can provide 20 watts of continuous power and peak bursts of power at 25 watts, enough to power a slim notebook, the company said. Recently, Millennium Cell signed a deal with Dow Chemical to develop the product.

In the market, consumers would buy replacement cartridges carrying the metallic hydride. Smith further added that the unit holding the sodium residues can be recycled into fiberglass.

Other products and demonstrations on the show floor of the conference include:

• A wireless universal serial bus demonstration by Texas Instruments. With Wireless USB, consumers can forgo cables to connect cameras and other devices to PCs. The protocol will be carried on top of ultrawideband wireless technology. Wireless USB and is in demo phase right now, said a TI representative. Samples of chips will likely come out in about six months with products going to device manufacturers in about 18 months.

• Technology for energy-efficient, bright notebook screens from Toshiba and start-up Clairvoyante. The screen consumes an inordinate amount of energy in notebooks, said Kamal Shah, an engineer with Intel who works with display manufacturers. Clairvoyante's PenTile liquid-crystal display technology contains pixels of different, rather than uniform, size to achieve better power consumption and brightness. Technically, Clairvoyante doesn't make screens but licenses the technology to screen makers.

• In one of the more unusual demonstrations, a start-up called Piconetics showed off a technology it says will harvest electricity that gets pumped into computers but is not used, thereby reducing power consumption through better conservation. In effect, the company is recycling energy that would otherwise be lost, by storing it in a capacitor for later use, William Zhang, Pionetics's director of engineering, said.

• Various PC makers showed off prototypes of entertainment computers for the living room. Taiwan's FIC, for instance, showed off a small machine, code-named Atlas, based on the Pico BTX motherboard design. Computers built on this motherboard design take up about 6.9 liters in volume, or about the size of a kid's shoebox. PCs based on this motherboard will begin to show up toward the middle of the year.

Wistron, meanwhile, showed off an entertainment PC based on the Mini BTX form factor. The computers take up about 17 liters in volume and are roughly the size and shape of a VCR. Though larger, PCs based on these boards can hold more add-in cards than Pico BTX PCs can.