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Monday, July 19, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
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Mobile devices to step beyond batteries

By MARGIE WYLIE
Newhouse News Service

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The low-battery bleep that ends your cellphone conversation in midsentence or sends you scrambling with your laptop for an outlet could soon be history, thanks to breakthroughs in fuel cells and solar energy.

Mobile devices are growing ever more power-hungry, even as conventional battery capacity hits its limits, said Sara Bradford, a San Antonio-based industry analyst with the research company Frost & Sullivan.

One solution to this problem is a new breed of solar cells with "the potential to keep a battery charged up so that the consumer may not ever have to plug it in," Bradford said.

Konarka Technologies of Lowell, Mass., has developed a dye-based solar cell that can be printed on rolls of plastic for a fraction of the cost of traditional solar cells.

While solar chargers on the market today are bulkier than the cellphones and personal digital assistants (PDAs) they charge, Konarka's first retail product, likely out next year, will be a foldable charger about the size and weight of a laminated pocket map, said Daniel McGahn, the company's executive vice president and chief marketing officer.

Konarka's solar cells could just as easily be part of the device, McGahn said. Manufacturers could wrap laptops in the company's thin plastic solar cells, which can be printed in an array of designs and colors. For smaller devices such as cellphones, sails could catch enough sun for an adequate charge.

Nanosys and Nanosolar, both of Palo Alto, Calif., are developing solar cells that can be sprayed or painted onto surfaces. So far, neither company has announced any products.

Fuel cells

But while solar cells may extend battery life for today's gadgets, tomorrow's power guzzlers will need more energy than batteries can provide. That's where micro fuel cells hold promise, Bradford said.

Fuel cells work by attracting a fuel — in this case, methanol — to an electrically charged membrane where it reacts with a catalyst to release power in the form of electrons.

Fuel cells will provide many times more power than batteries of equivalent volume and can completely eliminate the need to plug in, said Chris Dyer, an entrepreneur who is also editor of the Journal of Power Sources, a scholarly publication.
 
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"When you run out of energy, you should be able to just pop in a new fuel cartridge and be off again," Dyer said. But that's proven easier said than done.

Micro-fuel-cell designers have favored methanol as a fuel because it's readily available and, being liquid, easier to store than hydrogen gas. But methanol has to be mixed with water for cells to work. And managing this mixture requires pipes, pumps, insulation and venting so that excess water evaporates but the device being fueled doesn't get too hot.

"You are making what is essentially a chemical engineering plant into something the size of a deck of cards," Dyer said.

One company, MTI MicroFuel Cells of Albany, N.Y., has figured out how to eliminate the pipes and pumps, said Shimshon Gottesfeld, chief technology officer.

Its Mobion micro fuel cell uses a special membrane that recycles waste water, allowing the manufacturer to pack pure methanol, and thus more power, into its fuel cartridges. Mobion can yield four to five times the power of a comparable-volume lithium ion battery, Gottesfeld said.

Wait until 2007

The company has been showing off prototypes of a combination PDA and cellphone running on its fuel cell, but consumer products won't appear until 2007 or so, Gottesfeld said.

Bradford said some 20 firms are working on micro-fuel-cell designs, including NEC, Motorola, Casio, Sony and Panasonic. Hitachi and Toshiba have demonstrated prototype devices and are shipping test models next year.

The first 2,000 micro-fuel-cell-powered electronics units will be sold next year, mostly in Japan, according to a May report by ABI Research, an industry research firm based in Oyster Bay, N.Y. But Bradford said the first generation of power sources will be initially expensive to buy and refuel and will clip onto devices as chargers, rather than replace batteries.

At least one company is working on a second-generation micro fuel cell. Compact Power last month announced a hydrogen-powered, nanotechnology-based fuel cell that will be simpler to manufacture and use than methane systems. It will be 95 percent lighter than batteries, yet up to 10 times more powerful, said Dyer, the journal editor, who is Compact Power's president and CEO.

Fueled by a "throw-away, low-cost attachment made of a proprietary material that lets off hydrogen at a slow-release rate," his fuel cell should be three times as powerful as methanol cells, yet much cheaper, Dyer said.

He said the product could be ready for market in as little as two or three years.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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