Toshiba shows fuel cell prototype

Toshiba shows first working prototype fuel cell for notebook PCs, but says it is delaying commercialization about three years.

Toshiba used the Cebit trade show to demonstrate for the first time an operating prototype fuel cell for notebook PCs, but the company, citing size, weight and regulatory concerns, said it will not commercialize the technology for about another three years.

The company previously said that it intended to have its direct methanol fuel cell (DMFC) for notebook PCs ready for the market in 2004, but the schedule has slipped several times.

DMFCs are being developed to replace batteries for portable electronic devices and 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 and water.

The prototype shown at Cebit produces about 20 watts of power and can power an A5-size Portege M300 notebook PC for about 10 hours on a single charge of nearly 100 percent concentration of methanol, according to the company.

Toshiba declined to give exact specifications, but the prototype is about a liter in volume, weighs about a kilogram and needs to be shrunk to about half or a third of its present size and weight before it is put on sale, said Tomoaki Arimura, a specialist at the company's Methanol Fuel Cell Group.

"This size is not suitable for mobile applications and we have to adopt new parts," he said.

Future versions will also provide up to 25 watts to 30 watts of power, he said.

As there are no fundamental issues with the technology's power production, Toshiba will this year start testing evaluation models of the prototype. At the same time it is working on getting undisclosed vendors to make smaller pumps, valves and other parts, he said.

As the company works through these issues, it does not believe a market will develop for DMFCs until regulations are approved to allow airplane passengers to carry fuel cell cartridges, said Midori Suzuki, a spokeswoman for the company.

This should be possible in 2007 following a December decision by a United Nations committee to fast-track such regulations.

This issue is one factor that has already caused NEC Corp. to delay commercialization of its own DMFC until that year.

Meanwhile, a Taipei-based company claims it has three types of DMFCs ready for the market and is already talking to a number of PC vendors about commercialization.

Antig Technology, which was displaying its DMCF models at Cebit, has developed what it claims is the world's first CD ROM-sized fuel cell that can slot into the CD-ROM drive space of a notebook PC, according to Cary Chen, deputy account manager of the company's sales and marketing division. This 435 gram DMFC produces 10 watts and 7.2 volts and is 190 millimeters by 128 millimeters by 30 millimeters.

Also on display was a DMFC-based, 128 gram battery charger that can refresh the battery for an ordinary 3G (third-generation) mobile phone in about an hour, Chen said. The mobile phone battery recharger produces 3 watts and 5.5 volts and is 170 millimeters by 80 millimeters by 15 millimeters. A 629 gram notebook PC version produces 12 watts and 17 volts and is 310 millimeters by 55 millimeters by 50 millimeters.

While all versions of Antig's DMCFs work on a 10 percent to 15 percent concentration of methanol fuel, the company has yet to decide what size fuel cartridges are best suited for commercialization, said Eric Deng, deputy project manager of the company's Product and Technology Development Division.

Because fuel cell cartridge production, refueling technology and sales channels have yet to be developed, it will probably take until around 2007 before the company's fuel cells become widely commercially available, Chen said.

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