New Fuel Cell Tech for Portable Power

In the mobile digital age, it's all about power -- or rather, the lack of it.

Portable devices have certainly become much more capable than gadgets of previous generations. A growing number of cell phones, for example, are now so-called smart phones that can access the wireless Internet, send and receive digital multimedia messages, and pinpoint a user's location on Earth using the space-based Global Positioning System of satellites.

But device designers and consumers still face a persistent problem. Rechargeable battery technology hasn't kept pace with the rapid advancements in chip designs and other digital technologies.

That's why several companies and research labs have been increasingly focusing on the idea of fuel cells. Smaller versions of the environmentally friendly power plants could provide enough electricity to juice small electronics for weeks rather than days at a time.

On Wednesday, New York-based Medis Technologies will demonstrate what it claims is the first commercial portable fuel cell, solving many of the problems that have plagued developers over the past few years.

Robert Lifton, the company's chief executive officer, says the Medis Power Pack is a fuel cell that has been developed using research conducted by Israeli scientists over the last decade. Like other fuel cells, the pager-sized device uses a chemical process that converts hydrogen and oxygen into electricity.

Refined Fuel, Removed Reformer

However, most fuel cells use so-called reformers to strip the hydrogen atoms from other hydrocarbon-based fossil fuels -- such as natural gas, gasoline or methanol, an alcohol-based liquid. And while adding a reformer to larger fuel cells such as those used in regional power grids or even electric vehicles isn't difficult, such steps add cost and complexity in designing a small portable version.

Indeed, earlier this month, Finnish mobile phone maker Nokia announced that it is dropping plans to produce a methanol-based fuel cell for next-generation, power-hungry phones. The company cited several reasons for the setback, including immature technology and "logistical problems." Current airline regulations, for example, ban methanol aboard planes since the fuel combusts at a mere 11 degrees Celsius (52 degrees Fahrenheit).

But Medis hopes to skirt the complexity and combustion issues because its Power Pack device doesn't rely on liquid methanol. Instead, the fuel uses a proprietary mix of sodium borohydride -- a chemical compound similar to borax soap -- and alcohol.

Unlike methanol, the proprietary fuel has a much higher combustion point -- 250 degrees Celsius (482 degrees Fahrenheit), says Lifton. And he says the safer solution reduces the complexity of the fuel cell itself.

"Conventional fuel cell stacks use platinum and other rare materials in a PEM [proton exchange membrane], which makes it very expensive to produce," he said. By comparison, the Medis Power Pack uses a simple alkaline electrolyte solution to strip the hydrogen atoms of electrons in order to create electricity.

The Good and Bad

According to Lifton, the combination of unique fuel and fuel cell construction allows the Medis device to be small and inexpensive, yet extremely powerful.

"Our first product will produce electrical power ranging up to 1.3 watts and 5 volts," said Lifton. "That covers the power requirements of a very broad range of products -- cell phones, handheld computers, radios"

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.