Smaller, more powerful PC fuel cell is on the way

A new fuel cell for notebook PCs, more compact and powerful than competing technologies, could be on the market in early 2006 at a price of around US$90, its Japanese inventors said Tuesday.

Materials and Energy Research Institute Tokyo (Merit) is betting on direct borohydride fuel cell (DBFC) technology, which it sees as cheaper and more compact than the direct methanol fuel cell (DMFC) technology other Japanese companies are developing.

Fuel cells generate an electrical current from a chemical reaction between a hydrogen-containing fuel and oxygen. How much current a cell produces depends on a number of factors including the exact chemical reaction involved and the area of the membrane which separates the fuel from the oxygen. The length of time which the cell can produce power varies with the nature of the particular reaction and the amount of fuel stored in a reservoir.

The technology developed by Merit is similar to the DMFC types, but has several significant advantages, said Seiji Suda, president of Merit.

As with DMFCs, Merit's fuel cell has an anode, a cathode and a membrane, but instead of using methanol as fuel, it uses a solution of sodium borohydride. Merit's fuel cells develop about four times more power for the same area of membrane than DMFCs, Suda said.

"With DBFC, the anode is nickel alloy, which is very cheap, and the membrane is a conventional one. It's all very compact," he said.

The fuel cell will measure 80 millimeters (mm) by 84.6 mm by about 3 mm, and will be able to produce 20 watts of power, enough for a notebook PC, Suda said. "We also intend to stack five of the cells together and connect them in series so that they produce 100 watts. We'll have a working prototype that is suitable to demonstrate mass production for industry in the best case in four months," he said.

Commercial versions should be available in the first few months of 2006, and will cost around US$90, he said.

Sodium borohydride dissolves in water at room temperature and is commonly used to bleach magazine and print paper. Dissolved in an alkaline solution at concentrations up to 10 percent, it can be stored in cartridges shaped like a pen or a printer ink cartridge. A cartridge containing between 10 milliliters and 20 milliliters of the fuel solution will provide three hours to four hours of power, he said.

The chemical typically costs about US$50 per kilogram, and at this price, a cartridge of it will cost about YEN 150 (US$1.40), said Suda.

"We are also talking to several U.S. and European chemical companies and they are eager to sign up to mass produce sodium borohydride. In about five years, we could see the price dropping to YS$1 per kilo," he said.

Merit is talking to two companies outside Japan to produce fuel cells commercially, and also to a number of distributor companies to provide the fuel at retail outlets. The company is confident it will sign contracts for cell manufacturing and fuel distribution before the end of 2004, he said.

In the laboratory, Merit also has built a smaller fuel cell prototype for mobile phones. The device is about 20mm by 30mm by 2mm and produces one watt of power. The company is planning to shrink this prototype to about 10mm square, but does not have fixed commercialization plans yet, Suda said.

Several of Japan's largest consumer electronics companies have shown prototype DMFCs for notebook PCs and mobile phone chargers, but they have not announced prices for future commercial versions of their fuel cells.

Earlier this month Hitachi demonstrated a notebook PC fuel cell and last week, NEC Corp. showed a notebook PC fuel cell that resembled a notebook computer dock.

In August, NTT DoCoMo and Fujitsu Laboratories announced a fuel cell for recharging cell phones, while Hitachi and Toshiba both showed fuel cell phone charger prototypes earlier this month. Earlier this year, Toshiba also announced a fuel cell for portable electronics applications.

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Paul Kallender

IDG News Service
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