7/4/2008 – Electronic Business

Fuel cells combine chemicals to produce a reaction to produce electricity. Theoretically, they could power cell phones for much longer time periods than lithium-ion batteries.

By Tam Harbert, Contributing Editor — Electronic Business, 7/4/2008

Even in a world of skyrocketing energy costs, there’s no shortage of power for mobile phones. And that makes it difficult for alternative energy technologies like fuel cells that are trying to find a market in consumer electronics.

Fuel cells for portable applications generated a lot of hype several years ago, with predictions that mobile phone fuel cells would be on the market by 2007. That didn’t happen. But development work continues at several start-ups, as well as large OEMs. Now the start-ups are predicting that commercial products will start hitting the market in late 2009 or 2010. Maybe. Whether they find a home in any market is still a huge question mark.

Fuel cells combine chemicals to produce a reaction to produce electricity. Theoretically, they could power cell phones for much longer time periods than lithium-ion batteries. And when they did run out of power, a consumer could simply pop another fuel cell cartridge into his phone rather than having to plug into a wall somewhere to recharge.

For the consumer electronics market, companies are pursuing either of two different types of cells: one uses methanol, the other uses hydrogen. Advocates of each approach like to point out their advantages and the disadvantages of their competitors. But both approaches face the same significant obstacles.

One big regulatory barrier appears to be falling. Until recently, regulations prevented consumers from carrying methanol or hydrogen on airplanes. But last year, the International Civil Aviation Organization created new regulations that will allow methanol cartridges on planes starting this October and hydrogen in 2009. Individual countries must approve and implement the regulations, but fuel-cell proponents expect the regulations to be in place by the time their products are on the market.

But there are plenty of other obstacles, including technical ones. The chemicals used in fuel cells have limited temperature and humidity ranges, a problem because people want their cell phones to work regardless of the weather. Portable device batteries for consumer applications must be able to operate at the very least from minus-10 degrees to 40 degrees C, according to Jerry Hallmark, manager of energy systems technologies in Motorola Inc’s mobile devices business. Even MTI Micro Fuel Cells Inc, a fuel-cell start-up in Albany, NY, that says it has solved the temperature problem, has a temperature range of only 0 degrees to 40 degrees C.

Motorola has been investigating fuel cells for 10 years and continues to talk with a variety of fuel-cell companies, Hallmark noted. Early this year, Motorola and Angstrom Power Inc, a fuel-cell company based in Vancouver, Canada, completed a six-month trial using Angstrom’s hydrogen-based device in a Motorola SLVR L7 phone (prototype pictured, left). Without any redesign of the phone, the Angstrom device ran about twice as long as the battery version of the SLVR, according to Hallmark. “We’re pretty optimistic,” he said. “Angstrom’s technology looks very good compared to some others we’ve looked at.”

But it still suffered from a narrow temperature range – it couldn’t produce power at either the hot or cold end of the temperature range, he said. And it couldn’t provide bursts to meet peak power needs. Fuel cells tend to provide a constant level of power, but can’t handle it when consumer devices need a burst of power. “A battery does a great job of providing peak power, for example when you need extra power for the flash on a camera,” Hallmark said.

However, that problem could be solved by a hybrid approach, including a small battery or other small energy storage device that could be used to meet peak power needs, noted Olen Vanderleeden, director of business development at Angstrom.

Another barrier is cost. Today, “the fuel cell costs more than the device that you’re charging,” said Bruce McKendry, CEO at fuel-cell developer Antig Technology Co Ltd in Taipai (Antig’s Cellini fuel cell pictured, left). Fuel-cell companies say that there is nothing inherently costly about the technology and that costs will come down as volumes ramp up. Hallmark thinks manufacturers could get fuel cell costs down to about twice the cost of lithium ion, perhaps less, which he says would be a reasonable premium for the initial product.

But then there’s an additional cost that lithium ion doesn’t have: the fuel. Although the actual cost might be minimal, the larger problem is the fact that there is no infrastructure or distribution channel to provide methanol or hydrogen to mobile phone users. “In order to roll this out in a big way, you have to have a fuel-distribution channel in place,” said McKendry. “Consumers need to be able to go to Best Buy or some other big box store to get the fuel.”

That’s one reason McKendry and others think the first product to hit the market will be a fuel-cell-based universal charger. Such a device, which consumers could use to recharge many of their portable devices via a USB cable, would be a nice way for OEMs to dip their toes into the market. “It will give manufacturers and brands a feeling for whether or not it’s a viable technology in the marketplace,” said McKendry.

He predicted that OEMs will start testing the market with such products in 2009, and if the products find acceptance and if a retail fuel-distribution network is in place, OEMs could start designing fuel cells into products in 2010 and beyond.

And even that may be too optimistic. Hallmark said Motorola wouldn’t even start to develop a product “until we can actually demonstrate a prototype that meets all of our requirements. Then we would start product development and that typically takes 12 to 18 months.”

Those are a lot of “ifs.” The biggest of which is what if there simply aren’t enough people that want the advantages that fuel cells offer? After all, most people except hard-core road warriors seem happy with the way they recharge their phones today, which McKendry himself admits

“It’s not for everyone, not even for me,” he said. “I don’t use my cell phone enough to warrant having a fuel cell.”