Battery Alternatives Rev Up Slowly

Potentially the most exciting are fuel cells, using cheap, widely available fuel sources such as methane or hydrogen for part of the electrochemical reaction that generates electricity. The largest fuel cells are touted as the "next big thing" in electric cars and home energy systems. But postage-stamp-size versions are being developed for consumer electronic devices like camcorders and cell phones.

One such miniature fuel cell, a device that uses liquid methanol (wood alcohol), was announced last month by Motorola and Los Alamos National Laboratory. The biggest benefit is going to be operating life -- 10 times longer than today's batteries, says Bill Ooms, director of Motorola's material, device, and energy research division. Ooms says the cells aren't rechargeable. Cells will be inexpensive enough to be disposed of after use.

"Our intention is to have the price of a fuel cell be the same or less than the cost of a rechargeable battery," Ooms says. "This is in the early stages. We envision it being available within three to five years."

Ooms says the first commercial miniature fuel cells will complement existing rechargeable batteries, a sentiment echoed by Marvin Maslow, CEO of Manhattan Scientifics, which is developing a competing fuel cell. Maslow's company has already developed a cell phone holster that contains fuel cells that recharge the batteries whenever the phone is inserted. This capability will change the way people use cell phones, Maslow says, because handy recharging allows "always on" operation.

The miniature products from Manhattan Scientifics are in prototype now and could be available by 2001. But larger fuel cells for things like notebook computers and bicycles -- now under development in Germany in collaboration with a Fortune 50 company -- could appear by the end of the year, Maslow says. Last week the company announced that its Micro Fuel Cell achieved an electrical output three times greater than that of standard lithium-ion cell phone batteries, although the ultimate goal is a 10-times advantage.

Yet another battery technology, lithium polymer, is based on a malleable electrochemical material that can be cleverly fitted into the dead spaces inside electronic devices. While lithium polymer generates less power for the same amount of competing materials, more of it can fit inside a device, offering extra battery life or permitting still-lighter or radically shaped cell phones and personal digital assistants. A battery could even "hide" behind a notebook's screen. Several industry observers say a handful of vendors may offer lithium polymer devices by late 2000.

The action isn't all in chemistry labs, however. Last May, Enrev introduced the Battery Operating System, which purports to cut the recharge times of cell phone batteries in half and eliminate the "memory effect", a gradual reduction in battery life that afflicts many rechargeable batteries. "This piece of software actually manages the electrochemical processes inside the battery," says Mark Horne, Enrev's director of marketing. "It also maximises the total amount of energy you can hold inside a battery."

Enrev is using focus groups and other research to determine whether the drastically reduced recharge times change the way people use cell phones. "If they could trust the device to work more reliably, they would probably use it more," Horne says.

Horne can't name names, but says "you will probably start to see smaller PDA-type devices rolling out later this year, with laptops slightly behind that". A press spokesperson says the company is negotiating licences with major cellular phone manufacturers.

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David Essex

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