At MTI Micro, pushing fuel cells for portables

MTI Micro's goal is to displace lithium ion batteries in portable gadgets. The first fuel cells, it says, are due in 2009.(Posted in Green Tech by Hanna Sistek)Photos: Fuel cells for cameras
Written by Natalie Gagliordi, Contributor
For years, companies have promised that methanol fuel cells for powering cell phones and other gadgets are just around the corner. Now MTI Micro says it's finally true.

The fuel cell maker says it completed a number of working prototypes last year and will spend 2008 tooling up a factory to mass-produce fuel cells. Then in 2009, the first ones will appear, CEO Peng Lim said in an interview last week.

In 2006, Lim initiated a company reorganization to make sure MTI Micro could stay on track.

"We stepped back. It was not good to keep telling people we are going to ship next year," he said.

The company's goal is to start displacing lithium ion batteries with fuel cells in portable electronics. (Other competitors, such as Silicon Valley's Oorja, meanwhile, are concocting methanol fuel cells for powering small vehicles.)

"There is still one wire left in portable devices today, and that's the charging wire," said Lim. "And the battery system is not efficient at all. You talk for three hours on your mobile phone and then you have to charge it for half an hour."

The main advantage of fuel cells is that they will last twice as long as a battery pack of the same size. MTI, for instance, has come up with a fuel cell that snaps onto the bottom of an SLR camera. It is the same size as the add-on lithium ion battery packs used by professional photographers. The lithium ion packs allow photographers to snap off 1,400 to 2,200 photos, depending on whether a flash is used. MTI says its cell will let photographers snap off 2,800 to more than 4,000 shots.

"Methanol is the most energetic of the materials with the least amount of trouble for making a product."
--George Relan, MTI Micro VP

That's more than most photographers need, but might help professionals shooting events like the Olympics. One photographer told Lim that he carries five battery packs. A fuel cell would let him carry one pack and a few fuel cartridges.

The recharge time is almost nonexistent. Powering up a fuel cell-based phone only requires squirting in some new fuel or putting in a new cartridge. Methanol fuel cells create energy when oxygen and methanol react with catalysts in a membrane inside the fuel cell. The byproducts are electrons, water, and carbon dioxide. (The amount of carbon dioxide, though, is fairly small.)

By contrast, a battery takes a few hours to charge because it sucks electrons out of a socket. Additionally, methanol won't burst into flames unless you put a light to it. In 2006, Sony had to recall lithium ion batteries because of the danger of fire.

"Methanol is the most energetic of the materials with the least amount of trouble for making a product," says George Relan, vice president of corporate development at MTI. "You don't have to pressurize it, store it in cold temperatures, or make a powder of it--like you need with hydrogen--which you then have to mix with water to get a reaction. Methanol contains 5,000 watt hour energy per liter."

MTI Micro methanol fuel cells

Additionally, MTI says it has come up with a way to recycle the water within the fuel cell, thereby eliminating the need for a plumbing mechanism to get rid of the water that is the byproduct from the reaction. This makes their fuel cell smaller than earlier versions.

The company is a bit cagey on which products will come out first, but the prototypes offer clues. The company, for instance, has developed a line of universal chargers. Connect the charger to a cell phone or MP3 player with a USB cord and the charger will re-juice it. MTI also has a fuel cell for SLR cameras and a cell phone with a built-in fuel cell. It has been working with Samsung on various projects.

Is it a green fuel? Yes and no. Methanol is made from natural gas, a fossil fuel. (It can also be made out of wood.) The devices also exhale carbon dioxide. But, as stated earlier, it's a small amount of carbon dioxide. Lithium ion batteries need grid electricity, which leads to fumes at the power plant. Methanol, MTI adds, is also biodegradable. The cost of the fuel cells will initially be higher than the cost of conventional batteries. The lifetime will be the same, according to the company.

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