Charles Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic nonstop in 1927. There’s hardly a laptop computer in the world that could match that record. Most go dark after four hours or so, forcing the user to carry along heavy spare batteries or resign himself to a few idle hours.
That’s why scientists around the world are racing to perfect a new power source for laptops, cellphones, and other portable devices — the fuel cell, a device that could turn cheap liquid fuel into virtually unlimited electricity.
Like today’s rechargeable batteries, fuel cells can pump out enough power to run an energy-hungry laptop. But you won’t need a wall outlet to recharge — just a small flask of methanol, a form of alcohol that the fuel cell chemically transforms into electrons. A traveler could bring enough fuel in his carry-on to compute his way around the globe, and the only waste products he’d produce are the same found in human breath — heat, carbon dioxide, and water.
There’s nothing new about fuel cells. The first one was developed in England in 1839, and fuel cells provided electricity on the Apollo moon missions. The world’s automobile companies are experimenting with large fuel cells that could power electric cars.
But now, small fuel cells could become available to the masses. A German company, SFC Smart Fuel Cell of Munich, already sells a briefcase-size $6,000 portable fuel cell system to affluent campers who use it to recharge their battery-powered devices.
And Japan’s NEC Electronics says it will bring a fuel cell laptop to market by this time next year.
But don’t expect methanol-fueled electronics to catch on for quite a while.
Another Japanese company, Toshiba, had also planned a fuel cell laptop for next year but has since pushed the delivery date to 2005.
“We need to develop it to the point where it benefits the user, as opposed to doing a fuel cell just to be doing a fuel cell,” said Masa Okumura, director of worldwide product planning for Toshiba’s digital products division.
Jerry Hallmark, manager of energy technology at the research labs of Motorola Inc., also has his doubts.
“I think you may see prototypes next year,” said Hallmark. “I’d be very surprised if you see real high-volume products next year.”
One reason is cost. The chemical reaction that takes place inside a fuel cell relies on platinum, the costly metal used in jewelry and automotive catalytic converters. The more powerful the fuel cell, the more platinum it needs. Engineers are striving to come up with relatively cheap cells that still put out plenty of juice.
Besides, many devices get along fine with standard batteries. The low-power cellphones used by most Americans will provide a day’s talk time with each recharge, and so there’s not much incentive to try a new technology.
“The consumers are trained to go from power plug to power plug,” said Bob Hockaday, founder of Energy Related Devices Inc., a fuel cell company in Los Alamos, N.M. Hockaday believes the big market for fuel cell-powered phones will be countries with unreliable electricity supplies, such as China and India.
Beyond the laws of chemistry, fuel cells face an even tougher obstacle: bureaucracy. Methanol is both toxic and flammable; the US government won’t allow passengers to carry it on airplanes. It’s also barred by international air travel regulations administered by the United Nations.
It’s not a new problem. Lithium — found in the lithium-ion batteries used in nearly every cellphone and laptop — bursts into flame when exposed to oxygen. It took years for regulators to allow lithium-ion batteries on aircraft. The same approval process has only just begun for methanol, and it’ll probably take just as long.
At least there’s been progress on the domestic front. The US Department of Transportation last year approved a portable fuel cell for air travel. Based on technology developed at PolyFuel Inc. of Mountain View, Calif., the cell uses a solution that contains mostly water, and just 24 percent methanol. But until there are industry-wide standards for methanol use on airplanes, small fuel cells probably won’t catch on with the mass market.
While they’re waiting, fuel cell makers are targeting specialized niches.
MTI Micro Fuel Cells, a majority owned subsidiary of Mechanical Technology Inc. of Albany, N.Y., is building fuel cells for use with portable industrial devices.
The company has a deal with Intermec Technologies Corp. for a fuel cell-powered handheld machine that can scan radio ID tags attached to merchandise in a warehouse. The system would let warehouse workers manage inventory simply by walking past a tagged pallet of merchandise, and the fuel cell will provide enough juce to run the reader all day.
MTI is also designing a fuel cell radio for the US military to reduce the need for soldiers to carry heavy batteries around on the battlefield.
Not that MTI has given up on the consumer market. In September, Boston’s Gillette Co. announced it would invest up to $5 million in the company and work with it on a variety of fuel cell-related projects. One of them would help solve another key problem in marketing fuel cells — providing the fuel. Gillette and MTI will work on developing a line of standard-size methanol refill cartridges that could be sold at retail stores worldwide.
That way, buying fuel refills would become as convenient as purchasing traditional batteries. Indeed, Gillette’s investment could ensure the future of the company’s Duracell battery business.
“We’re committed to remaining at the forefront of portable power research,” said Gillette spokesman Eric Kraus, “and we view fuel cells and fuel cell refills as a potential long-term growth opportunity.”
If consumers are destined to buy methanol cartridges as avidly as they buy today’s copper-topped batteries, Gillette’s $5 million may prove a very canny investment.