MTI shows methanol fuel cell prototypes

MTI Micro has unveiled prototype Direct Methanol Fuel Cells for cell phones and digital cameras at an event in Tokyo.

MTI Micro has unveiled prototype Direct Methanol Fuel Cells (DMFC) that can keep portable electronics products running for longer than conventional batteries and make recharging much easier.

The fuel cell prototypes, which are based on several years of development work at the company, include a sleek model fitted to the back of a Samsung BlackJack smart phone and one packed into a battery grip of the size already used on digital SLR (single lens reflex) cameras. They will be on show at the Fuel Cell Expo, which opens in Tokyo on Wednesday.

DMFCs produce electricity from a reaction between methanol, water and air. The only by-products of the reaction are a small amount of water vapor and carbon dioxide, so the fuel cells are typically seen as a much greener form of energy than traditional batteries. A big advantage of DMFCs is that they can be replenished with a new cartridge of methanol in seconds.

"It's a completely grid-free environment," said Peng Lim, chief executive officer of Mechanical Technology (MTI), in an interview. "Recharging without plugging into the wall is very important for travelers."

The cell-phone DMFC prototype takes advantage of this quick replenish and potentially offers an immediate recharge when the battery dies, while the camera DMFC provides twice the energy of a Lithium Ion battery-based grip, he said.

The latter manages double the energy by combining a fuel cell and battery in the same case. The camera runs off the battery power, but the fuel cell has the ability to charge the battery once, so the combination provides double the energy. The cell-phone DMFC also includes a battery, but it contains just enough power to boot up the phone while the cell starts operation.

On the rear of the DMFC is a heat exchanger about the size of two postage stamps. It provides cooling for the system and allows the excess water produced in the reaction to evaporate into the air. In use it doesn't get hot but it does get warm -- about the same as a laptop computer. MTI says it should be fine to keep in a pocket without overheating, but whether users want a warm cell phone close to their skin remains to be seen. However the device is a proof of concept, and work remains to be done on it, so a cooler running DMFC could be possible by the time it's commercialized.

Before the DMFCs like the two prototypes are commercialized, MTI plans to bring onto the market a DMFC-based charger.

A prototype of that was also demonstrated. With a USB power socket on its side, it can recharge any number of portable electronic devices and even run them if they use a sufficiently small amount of power. Each refill cartridge for the recharger has enough methanol to recharge a cell phone about eight to 10 times, said Lim.

A road warrior should be able to survive away from a wall jack for a month with that much power, and then get another month by inserting a new methanol cartridge.

MTI is looking to partner with OEM companies to sell the rechargers, which it says will be ready for commercial production in 2009. It has already signed a deal with Duracell for distribution of the fuel cell cartridges, he said.

MTI isn't the only company pursuing DMFC technology. Others, like Japan's Toshiba, have been showing prototypes for years -- but none have reached the market.

Their debut has been partly delayed by hassles getting the methanol fuel onboard aircraft, but the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) has approved uncompressed methanol fuel cartridges for carriage on planes, and several countries including the U.K., Canada, Japan and China have adjusted local rules to match. The U.S. is currently in the process of clearing DMFCs for take-off.

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