Bionic batteries

The debut of application-loaded portable devices begs the question of what will power them.

We want a cell phone that doubles as a PDA, a laptop that operates during an entire transcontinental flight and an MP3 player that can store tons of music files. But can a lithium-ion battery really pack the power needed to keep these hungry devices running on demand, 24/7?

That's where fuel cells come in. Unlike batteries, which are basically storage devices that hold a finite amount of fuel in an enclosed unit and expend it through combustion, fuel cells are energy generators that can expend high-density energy indefinitely as long as they're supplied with fuel, usually in the form of hydrogen and oxygen.

Companies such as Medis Technologies, Manhattan Scientifics and Motorola Labs are well into the development of miniature fuel cells, finessing the technology into a reliable, powerful and safe resource that could also influence product design changes. With fuel cells, there are no moving parts, and they're impervious to temperature change. That eliminates the need for fans--a significant issue when dealing with fast-performing transistors that become very hot.

The ultimate impact, of course, could be on mobile commerce. "Basic to the manufacturers' dreams is that you will buy a new cell phone or PDA and do what you do at home, in the office or on the road," says Robert Lifton, chairman and CEO of Medis Technologies. "Sometime in 2003 or 2004, they have to offer you a totally mobile life and, to the extent they fall short of that, they may fall short of selling the product."

Analysts say we'll be seeing prototypes this year with product debuts hopefully in 2002, initially as battery adjuncts.

Fuel cell prototypes
Medis is working on a refuelable cartridge using liquid methanol without a proton exchange membrane. This would eliminate a development problem for fuel cells: Water, generated as part of the reaction product, diffuses through the membrane, leading to unwanted water on one side of the fuel cell. The company's direct liquid methanol fuel cells are expected to be in final prototype form by the middle of this year.

"We'd like to be in production in 2003, which is about when companies will be ready with maximized cell phones and PDAs," Lifton says.

Manhattan Scientifics is developing a "power holster," a portable charger system for battery-powered cell phones. "The end game is to replace the battery," says CEO Marvin Maslow. "For now, rather than do battle with lithium-ion battery manufacturers, we decided to make a holster and put the micro fuel cell inside. When you put the phone in the holster, it trickles energy, so it's always being charged."

The essence of what Manhattan Scientifics has developed is a way to produce fuel cells in a flat printed form. Generally, says Maslow, fuel cells are stacked, and thereby take up a lot of space. Since the key to portable electronics is compactness, Manhattan Scientifics considers itself to be in a competitive position.

Motorola Labs, too, is working with batteries as a recharger. "Our first fuel cell will be a hybrid fuel cell and rechargeable battery," says Jerry Hallmark, manager of Motorola Labs' energy technology lab. "This is a good transitional product."

Motorola says its prototype is five to six times higher in energy density than lithium-ion batteries. Like the other companies, it working on a small methanol-filled cartridge--similar to a fountain pen ink cartridge--that is plugged into a device. When it runs out, the user either replaces the cartridge and recycles it, or refills it.

Fuel for doubt
Battery manufacturers see fuel cells, though, as a distant solution. "These technologies are years away, and they're complicated," says James Kaschmitter, CEO of PolyStor, which makes rechargeable batteries for cell phones. "I'm not saying it can't be done, but there are issues like reliability and safety. With liquid methanol, you've got a canister of highly explosive fluid that could blow up."

Motorola Labs' Hallmark agrees that safety is a legitimate issue, noting that current airline regulations forbid methanol to be carried by passengers, although that is being addressed. And Manhattan Scientifics is experimenting with an alternative fuel, sodium borohydride, which Maslow says is consumer-friendly and more powerful than methanol.

Kaschmitter also points out that batteries will continue to improve. But Atakan Ozbek, senior energy analyst with Allied Business Intelligence, notes that they haven't been improving at the same rate as fuel cells. "3G technologies [which facilitate mobile data transmission] will require at least 50 percent more power from a device," he says. "Batteries by their nature have upper limits in efficiency. By definition, fuel cells can push further and more quickly."

"You have to have reliable power and efficiency," says Ozbek. "If you can't get these devices reliably powered, you can't beat the barriers in the market. That's why fuel cells are so important."

Mark Evans is Managing Director for Deloitte & Touche's Technology & Communications Group.We want a cell phone that doubles as a PDA, a laptop that operates during an entire transcontinental flight, and an MP3 player that can store tons of music files. But can a lithium-ion battery really pack the power needed to keep these hungry devices running on demand, 24/7?

That's where fuel cells come in. Unlike batteries, which are basically storage devices that hold a finite amount of fuel in an enclosed unit and expend it through combustion, fuel cells are energy generators that can expend high-density energy indefinitely as long as they're supplied with fuel, usually in the form of hydrogen and oxygen.

Power players

Companies such as Medis Technologies, Manhattan Scientifics, and Motorola Labs are well into the development of miniature fuel cells, finessing the technology into a reliable, powerful, and safe resource that could also influence product design changes. With fuel cells, there are no moving parts, and they're impervious to temperature change. That eliminates the need for fans--a significant issue when dealing with fast-performing transistors that become very hot.

The ultimate impact, of course, could be on mobile commerce. "Basic to the manufacturers' dreams is that you will buy a new cell phone or PDA and do what you do at home, in the office, or on the road," says Robert Lifton, chairman and CEO of Medis Technologies. "Sometime in 2003 or 2004, they have to offer you a totally mobile life and, to the extent they fall short of that, they may fall short of selling the product."

Analysts say we'll be seeing prototypes this year with product debuts hopefully in 2002, initially as battery adjuncts.

Medis is working on a refuelable cartridge using liquid methanol without a proton exchange membrane. This would eliminate a development problem for fuel cells: water, generated as part of the reaction product, diffuses through the membrane, leading to unwanted water on one side of the fuel cell. The company's direct liquid methanol fuel cells are expected to be in final prototype form by the middle of this year.

"We'd like to be in production in 2003, which is about when companies will be ready with maximized cell phones and PDAs," Lifton says.

Manhattan Scientifics is developing a "power holster," a portable charger system for battery-powered cell phones. "The end game is to replace the battery," says CEO Marvin Maslow. "For now, rather than do battle with lithium-ion battery manufacturers, we decided to make a holster and put the micro fuel cell inside. When you put the phone in the holster, it trickles energy, so it's always being charged."

The essence of what Manhattan Scientifics has developed is a way to produce fuel cells in a flat printed form. Generally, says Maslow, fuel cells are stacked, and thereby take up a lot of space. Since the key to portable electronics is compactness, Manhattan Scientifics considers itself to be in a competitive position.

Motorola Labs, too, is working with batteries as a recharger. "Our first fuel cell will be a hybrid fuel cell and rechargeable battery," says Jerry Hallmark, manager of Motorola Labs' energy technology lab. "This is a good transitional product."

Motorola says its prototype is five to six times higher in energy density than lithium-ion batteries. Like the other companies, it is conceptualizing a small cartridge, similar to a fountain pen ink cartridge, filled with methanol that is plugged into a device. When it runs out, the user either replaces the cartridge and recycles it, or refills it.

Battery manufacturers see fuel cells, though, as a distant solution. "These technologies are years away, and they're complicated," says James Kaschmitter, CEO of PolyStor, which makes rechargeable batteries for cell phones. "I'm not saying it can't be done, but there are issues like reliability and safety. With liquid methanol, you've got a canister of highly explosive fluid that could blow up."

Motorola Labs' Hallmark agrees that safety is a legitimate issue, noting that current airline regulations forbid methanol to be carried by passengers, although that is being addressed. And Manhattan Scientifics is experimenting with an alternative fuel, sodium boro hydride, which Maslow says is consumer-friendly and more powerful than methanol.

Kaschmitter also points out that batteries will continue to improve. But Atakan Ozbek, senior energy analyst with Allied Business Intelligence, notes that they haven't been improving at the same rate as fuel cells. "3G technologies [which facilitate mobile data transmission] will require at least 50 percent more power from a device," he says. "Batteries by their nature have upper limits in efficiency. By definition, fuel cells can push further and more quickly."

"You have to have reliable power and efficiency," says Ozbek. "If you can't get these devices reliably powered, you can't beat the barriers in the market. That's why fuel cells are so important."

Mark Evans is Managing Director for Deloitte & Touche's Technology & Communications Group.