Despite remaining technology and cost hurdles, micro fuel cells are expected to enter into commercial production early next year, according to Allied Business Intelligence Inc.
The Oyster Bay, N.Y., market research firm said in a recent study that the cells, which use a replaceable cartridge filled with methanol, will initially be incorporated into external chargers for laptop computers. Later, the cells will be designed into hybrid battery systems and provide higher energy density replacements for lithium-ion batteries in laptops and other portable products.
"Companies have been developing prototypes at a rapid pace," said ABI analyst Atakan Ozbek, who projects that worldwide micro fuel cell shipments will grow from 5,000 in 2004 to 200 million in 2011, while global revenue for the same period will rise from $1 million to $2 billion.
Ozbek stressed, however, that several obstacles must be overcome before acceptance on a large scale can occur.
"Micro fuel cells will have to come down 50% in size from present prototypes while density improves," he said. The cells will also have to come down in cost; for instance, from $150-$200 to $100-$150 for laptop chargers. Other concerns include voltage management and safety.
Nevertheless, recent developments indicate that the cells are closer to comercial reality.
Last month, Toshiba Corp., Tokyo, unveiled a prototype for a small-form-factor methanol fuel cell measuring 10.82 x 2.95 x 1.57in. and weighing 28.9oz. The cell produces 12W and provides five hours of operation on a re-usable cartridge. Because it uses the same electrode found in lithium-ion batteries, the cell can replace them in portable devices, according to Toshiba.
The company expects to build the cells starting sometime next year.
MTI MicroFuel Cells Inc., Albany, N.Y., agreed earlier this year to integrate its methanol micro fuel cell power system, which is under development, into mobile computers and peripherals from Intermec Technologies Corp., Everett, Wash., beginning early next year.
The fuel cell system eliminates external pumps and water connections, simplifying design and reducing manufacturing costs, according to William Acker, MTI's president and chief executive.
One problem with early micro fuel cells has been the integrity of the cell membrane, said Jim Balcom, president and chief executive of PolyFuel Inc., Menlo Park, Calif.
"Membranes used for hydrogen fuel cells tend to dissolve in methanol and are too expensive,"he said. "We've developed a less costly membrane for methanol fuel cells," Balcom said.
PolyFuel will use partners to mass manufacture the membranes starting early next year, he said.
An infrastructure of materials and component suppliers to support fuel cell makers will slowly develop and eventually result in outsourcing of volume production, according to ABI's Ozbek. But until that occurs, he expects large suppliers, such as Sony Corp. and Toshiba, to build the entire cell.