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Fuel-cell breakthrough could boost portable power

Fuel-cell technology could be cheaper to run, following a breakthrough that may prolong the life of the proton exchange membrane

Scientists at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) are working to develop micro fuel cells to power portable electronic devices and have made an important breakthrough that may make the technology cheaper to own and operate.

Fuel cells are often touted as a replacement for batteries in laptop computers and other devices, as their ability to generate many hours of power using fuels such as hydrogen or methanol promises greater longevity than conventional chemical batteries.

CSIRO is working on proton exchange membrane fuel cells, a technology which produces electricity by squeezing hydrogen atoms through a very thin polymer membrane, a process that strips an electron from the atom. This electron is captured as electricity and the remaining hydrogen is then combined with air to produce water and a little heat, the only by products of the reaction.

Fuel-cell technology is very well established -- fuel cells are used on the space shuttle and a fuel-cell-powered car led the women's marathon at the Sydney Olympics -- but the engineering problems of miniaturising fuel cells for use in portable electronics have long been a barrier to wider adoption.

Another issue is the need to periodically replace the membrane at the heart of a fuel cell, an additional cost consumers and business alike are unlikely to welcome.

CSIRO's work is addressing this issue by lengthening the working life of membranes. A team in the organisation's Melbourne-based Manufacturing and Infrastructure Technology unit has extended the life of the membrane to over 1500 working hours -- over two months of operation.

CSIRO expects to make a formal announcement about the technology in early 2004, but will not yet commit to a lifespan for membranes or predict when its work will be commercialised.

Other manufacturers, however, are bolder: both NEC and Toshiba have announced that they will debut fuel-cell-powered laptops during 2004, offering "battery" life exceeding five hours.