IBM, Sanyo announce fuel cell prototype

IBM and Sanyo have developed a high-power combination polymer lithium ion-fuel cell prototype technology for commercialization in around 2008.

IBM's Japanese unit and Sanyo Electric have developed a prototype direct methanol fuel cell (DMFC) for notebook PCs that will probably be commercialised around 2007 or 2008.

IBM was considering endorsing the fuel cell for use in its ThinkPad-branded laptop PCs, it said.

Electronics vendors hope that fuel cells will allow portable devices to run for longer without recharging than today's battery technologies.

DMFCs are being developed by a number of companies. They typically work by mixing methanol with air and water to produce electrical power. Only methanol is required as fuel, and the by-products are heat, water and carbon dioxide.

The fuel cell prototype, like others announced by Japanese companies such as Toshiba and NEC, clips on the back of the notebook and wraps around underneath it.

Sanyo's prototype weighs 2kg and can provide about 8 hours of power from a single 130 cubic-centimeter fuel cartridge containing pure methanol, according to group executive of Sanyo's Power Solutions Group, Mitsuru Homma.

The prototype system also contains a slim lithium ion polymer battery, which is built into the base of the unit under the notebook PC, and charged by the fuel cell even as the fuel supplies power to the PC.

While the fuel cell by itself supplied a maximum of 12 watts (W) of power, the combination of the fuel cell with the polymer battery could supply a maximum of 72W - enough to meet the peak power demands of high-end ThinkPads, Homma said.

Sanyo and IBM call this combination of fuel cell plus battery a hybrid design.

They had adopted this approach to overcome DMFC technology's lack of power, the companies said.

Prototypes announced by other Japanese electronics companies generate between 10 watts and 20 watts of power, and developers at these companies are improving designs so that future DMFCs can produce up to about 30 watts. However, this is still not enough to meet peak power needs of notebook computers running many applications, according to Sanyo.

IBM had been looking for DMFC designs that were durable and powerful and decided to work with Sanyo on the hybrid design, and Sanyo's approach looked, so fa,r to be the most suitable for ThinkPads, an IBM fellow, Arimasa Naito, said.

The ThinkPad line was developed in Japan at the Yamato Laboratory, which is part of IBM's PC Division.

IBM would continue to work with Sanyo to develop the hybrid system further and IBM WAs considering the technology for use with ThinkPads, Naito said. IBM did not say more about its level of commitment to the technology. IBM is selling its PC Division to Chinese PC vendor Lenovo Group.

A commercial version of the fuel cell will be able to produce between 20W and 30W of power, and an initial version for the corporate market could cost about $US463, a manager at Sanyo's Mobile Energy Company, Hiroshi Kurokawa, said.

Later versions for the consumer market would cost less, he said.

The system could be available for notebook PCs made by other vendors, according to Sanyo spokesperson, Ryan Watson.

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Paul Kallender

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