Giving new meaning to clean energy, a New Jersey company is developing micro fuel cells for mobile phones and laptops using a major ingredient in soap.

Millennium Cell of Eatontown, New Jersey, is working on hydrogen fuel cells based on sodium borohydride, a high-energy form of borate, or borax, a natural mineral mined to make laundry soap.

When passed over a proprietary catalyst, a solution of sodium borohydride releases hydrogen, which is combined with oxygen in a fuel cell to generate electricity.

Millennium Cell said it has developed several prototype systems for mobile phones, PDAs and laptops that are no bigger than standard battery packs, but deliver up to four times the battery life.

“Power demands are going up as usage and features are added to our devices,” said Stephen Tang, Millennium Cell’s president and chief executive. “Batteries are improving their storage capacity at 10 percent per year, but power requirements are increasing 30 to 50 percent a year.”

According to Tang, the company’s fuel system will deliver 12 hours of cell-phone talk time instead of four, and a month of standby instead of a week.

The system uses a solution that is one-third sodium borohydride and two-thirds water. According to the company, the energy in a gallon of sodium borohydride is equivalent to the energy in a gallon of gasoline.

But unlike gas, sodium borohydride is nonflammable and noncorrosive — and it’s easier and safer to store. It is also friendlier to the environment. The fuel-cell system’s byproducts are borax and water.

“It is less environmentally hazardous than alkaline batteries that are concentrated Drano, essentially,” said Tang.

According to the company, it is much safer than competing methanol fuel-cell technologies. Micro fuel cells, many based on methanol, are under development at many electronics manufacturers, including Toshiba, NEC, Casio, Sony, Nokia and Ericsson. The first are expected on the market next year.

Millennium Cell’s system was originally developed for the automotive industry, where nonexplosive fuel is a major advantage. Both DaimlerChrysler and Peugeot based prototype cars on it.

Peugeot used the system to build a diminutive fire truck for the narrow streets of Europe that is designed to get very close to flames — there’s no danger of the fuel system exploding. DaimlerChrysler claims its Natrium minivan is the first fuel-cell vehicle to go 300 miles without refueling, an industry benchmark for alternative-power vehicles.

But despite the Bush administration’s pledge of $1.2 billion for alternative-energy technologies, the market hasn’t taken off. Instead, Millennium Cell is eyeing the potentially huge market for mobile consumer devices.

The company has development deals with Korean-based Samsung, the U.S. Department of Energy and the Department of Defense, which wants long-lasting energy sources for soldiers in the field.

Tang said the company is also working with several other unannounced consumer-electronics companies. He said working prototype products will be shown publicly by next summer.

Millennium Cell is working on several concepts, including fully disposable power packs. When the fuel runs out, the fuel pack is tossed just like an alkaline battery. Alternatively, the company may develop a cartridge that can be refilled by the consumer, or sent to a factory to be refueled. Whatever the system, Tang estimated the cost to be about $1.50 per cartridge.

Walter Nasdeo, managing director of Ardour Capital Partners, an independent research boutique in New York, said he likes the company’s technology because it is “extremely benign.”

“Only a small amount of hydrogen is produced at any one time. If there was an accident, the risk is minimal,” he said.

Nasdeo said Millennium Cell’s system works well and is inexpensive, but he cautioned that it faces a lot of competition from methanol-based fuel-cell technologies.

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