Fuel Cell Compatibility Considered: alternative power sources for handheld devices

The International Electrotechnical Commission has formed a working group to draw up standards that will ensure compatibility between micro fuel-cells, Toshiba says.

The company is among several that are developing such devices as alternative power sources for handheld electronic devices. Development of a standard could mean the micro fuel cell could be launched in music players, digital cameras, and other devices as early as next year.

Meeting in September

Formation of the new Working Group 10 (WG10) of the IEC's Technical Committee 105 (TC105) was approved in a vote on July 30, Toshiba representatives say. It is chaired by Dr. Fumio Ueno, a technology executive of Toshiba's display devices and components control center. The group itself was proposed by Toshiba along with other Japanese companies, says Junichi Nagaki, a Toshiba spokesperson.

WG10 is tasked with setting an international standard to ensure compatibility between the fuel cells and their fuel cartridges, Nagaki says. This will be advantageous to users because fuel cells need to be regularly recharged with methanol.

The first WG10 meeting is scheduled to begin on September 20 in Chicago, and the group hopes to set common guidelines by 2007, Nagaki adds. However, a number of companies are predicting the commercial launch of micro fuel cells before then.

"Just because no international standard has been agreed, that doesn't necessarily mean competing manufacturers won't be working together," Nagaki says. "Since Toshiba, along with other Japanese manufacturers, are members of the working group, we will know what is happening and being discussed. When we begin manufacturing and introduce micro fuel cells, we can make products that will have compatibility with the IEC standards."

Vendors Scramble

Toshiba has already shown prototype micro fuel cells designed for use in portable electronic devices. In June, the company unveiled a prototype direct methanol fuel cell (DMFC) that is small enough for use in a gadget such as an MP3 player and can provide enough power for 20 hours of use on a single charge of 2 cubic centimeters of methanol. Toshiba expects the DMFC to be ready for sale sometime in 2005.

Hitachi is also targeting 2005 for the launch of a micro fuel cell and compatible personal digital assistant. Hitachi is working on a micro fuel cell with Tokai, a major producer of disposable lighters and aerosol dispensers. It has developed a prototype that is around 1 centimeter in diameter and between 5 centimeters and 6 centimeters in length, or about the same size as an "AA" battery.

In addition to micro fuel cells for handheld devices, a number of companies have also shown or say they are developing fuel cells for larger products such as notebook computers. NEC and Toshiba have both said they will launch computers powered by such devices this year.

WG10 is the third working group formed as part of TC105 that is looking at micro fuel cell standardization. The others are Working Group 8, which is looking at safety standards, and Working Group 9, which is looking at performance standards, Nagaki says.

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Martyn Williams

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