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Published: Thursday, 12/4/2008

Fuel cells for electronics nearer

ASSOCIATED PRESS
Lilliputian Systems Inc. plans to introduce a portable fuel cell late next year for electronic devices. Lilliputian Systems Inc. plans to introduce a portable fuel cell late next year for electronic devices.
STEVEN SENNE / AP Enlarge

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. - Laptop, cell phone, and iPod owners tired of their devices running out of charge after a few hours have been waiting for the next portable power source.

Tiny fuel cells, powered by combustible liquids or gasses, have long been touted as the eventual solution.

But fuel cells perennially remained a year or two away from the market as companies worked on making them small, cheap, and long-lasting while making sure they don't overheat.

Lilliputian Systems Inc., a Wilmington, Mass., firm founded by former Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers, plans to introduce a portable fuel cell late next year for any device that can be charged via a USB port.

The cigarette-pack-size charger will use a canister of butane, the same fuel used in cigarette lighters, said Mouli Ramani, Lilliputian's vice president of business development.

Each teaspoon of the fuel can provide 20 times the run time of a battery of the same size.

A fuel-cell charging system, left, is about the same size as a mobile phone. A fuel-cell charging system, left, is about the same size as a mobile phone.
STEVEN SENNE / AP Enlarge

The charging system probably will sell for $100 to $150 with refill cartridges retailing for $1 to $3, Mr. Ramani said.

And MTI MicroFuel Cells Inc., of Albany, N.Y., plans to introduce an external charger by late 2009 as it works with electronics manufacturers on building fuel cells into devices.

Peng Lim, the company's chairman and chief executive officer, said MTI's current methanol fuel cell can produce about three times the energy of a lithium ion battery, common in cell phones. With further improvements, the cell could last ten times longer than lithium, he said.

Not all manufacturers are sold on fuel cells, at least not in the near term.

Matt Kohut, competitive analyst for Lenovo Group Ltd., the world's No. 4 PC maker, said fuel cells will eventually power laptops but he doesn't expect commercialization for at least five years.

Consumers are used to getting a battery charge from any electrical outlet, so refill cartridges would have to be "as ubiquitous as cigarettes and bottles of Coke in every 7-Eleven" in order for fuel cells to take off, Mr. Kohut said.



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