Methanol can power mobile networks when electricity is out, says Nokia Siemens

Methanol-powered fuel cells are cheaper than diesel and take up less space than batteries

Nokia Siemens Networks and Ballard Power Systems want methanol-powered fuel cells to keep mobile networks running in the event of an electricity outage and are working with NTT DoCoMo to test the technology.

The need for base stations to be able to run without electricity was once again highlighted after superstorm Sandy hit the U.S. east coast. Methanol-powered fuel cells could provide an alternative to today's batteries and diesel-powered backup generators, Nokia Siemens Networks and Ballard said Monday.

The fuel cells are friendlier to the environment, quieter and more economical than diesel, take up less space and weigh less than a comparable battery back-up, the companies said.

The base station and fuel cell combination developed by Nokia Siemens and Ballard provides approximately 40 hours of operation on a single tank holding 225 liters, or about 5.6 liters of methanol per hour.

That compares to a fuel consumption of about three liters per hour for a diesel generator, according to Nokia Siemens. But that comparison doesn't tell the whole story; diesel generators require much more maintenance and diesel is three times more expensive than methanol, Nokia Siemens said.

The availability of the fuel of choice was a key consideration. In Japan, the partners made sure suppliers were able to provide enough fuel and methanol was the best choice, according to Nokia Siemens.

The driving force between the fuel cell project is Japanese carrier NTT DoCoMo, which has evaluated the combined base station and fuel cell at a research and development test site in Japan's Yokosuka Research Park. The system has also been approved by the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI), according to Nokia Siemens.

"This is something we have developed specifically in partnership with DoCoMo. Following particularly the tsunami it is looking at how to build more resilience into their network," said Ben Roome, head of media relations at Nokia Siemens.

Nokia Siemens hopes DoCoMo's test will result in a commercial contract, and then it could develop similar solutions for other operators, as well, according to Roome.

Fuel cells, which convert chemical energy from fuel into electricity, may also end up powering or recharging smartphones.

Japanese company ROHM Semiconductor showed a small hydrogen fuel cell meant for charging portable devices at the recent Ceatec exhibition in Japan. The company hopes to bring the cells -- which have enough power to charge a smartphone in two hours -- to market in April of next year.

U.S. company Lilliputian Systems, whose backers include Intel, is also working on a fuel cell for charging smartphones and other portable devices. In September, it secured US$40 million in additional financing to help scale manufacturing and launch the USB Mobile Power System, a launch that is currently being prepared, according to Lilliputian's website.

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