New Fuel Cell Tech for Portable Power

But Lifton is quick to point out that as near-perfect as the Power Pack may be, it won't replace rechargeable batteries overnight.

Part of the reason is that even Medis' fuel cell requires a "support infrastructure." In other words, retail stores that would sell Medis' safer fuel in order to "recharge" the fuel cell.

"If you want … a refillable fuel cell, you have to get fuel cartridges stocked everywhere," said Lifton. "But retailers will carry them only when there is a demand for it. It's a chicken-and-egg kind of thing."

Another downside: The Power Pack can't, for now, be made into the small battery shapes that fit ever-shrinking portable devices.

"PEM fuel cells are thinner," said Lifton. But overall, "fuel cells, for now, are a bit more bulky than current rechargeable batteries."

Supplement, Not Supplant

But Lifton says there's still room for mobile fuel cells. In fact, when the Power Pack becomes available, the company says it will market the device as a way to supplement portable devices' rechargeable batteries.

"Our product will be the 'socket in your pocket,' allowing you to recharge your cell phone, Gameboy or whatever when you're not near a wall outlet," said Lifton.

Medis is negotiating with several major manufacturers, including Eastman Kodak, to produce a commercial version of the Power Pack. When the device hits store shelves at the end of this year or early next year, it's expected to cost less than $20.

And to entice retail outlets and other potential partners -- such as cellular service providers -- to stock the devices, Lifton says the first commercial versions will be disposable. That way, stores won't have to deal with fuel cartridges. Once a Power Pack is depleted of its fuel, users will merely discard it and buy another fresh fuel cell.

"The only byproducts of our fuel cell are water and an alkaline chemical, similar to that found in ordinary batteries," said Lifton. "The fact that it's disposable is not negative in that people throw out alkaline [batteries] all the time."

Marching On

While it remains to be seen how much of a jolt fuel cells will have on consumers' demand for more portable power, Medis isn't sitting still.

It's currently working with General Dynamics to produce a refillable fuel cell for the military. That version could become a lightweight alternative to the heavy batteries soldiers have to carry into battle to power various high-tech gear such as GPS locators, night-vision goggles, radios and laser sights.

Such work with General Dynamics might pave the way for improved consumer versions. And that would be a good thing since road warriors never seem to get enough power.

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