A Fuel cell to power your phone

With so many large and small companies in the mix, micro fuel cells will eventually gain a foothold in portable devices.

Christophe Pillot, Avicenne Development

In the electronics world, the unwritten rule is that performance should roughly double every 18 months. But in the battery space, very little occurred until the 1990s when three new technologies were launched: nickel metal hydride, lithium-ion, and lithium-polymer batteries. Each has captured an increasingly higher market share in the last decade. Ten years ago, a battery represented about 33% of the volume and 33% of the weight of a cell phone. Aston­ishingly, those specs haven't changed much, even with the newer chemistries.

Today's portable devices supply an excess of information, including the wireless Internet and wireless commerce. Power needs are increasing and it's difficult to close the gap between power needs, space, and weight in a handset or any other portable device that's continually decreasing in size and weight. Battery makers, power 1C developers, processor designers, and system integrators are painstakingly searching for innovative ways to build new products while keeping costs down.

One of those ways is a fuel cell. In theory, fuel cells are a miraculous technology—they're cost-efficient (using hydrogen and air), environmental friendly, and offer a high energy potential

Following the invention of the first cell by Alessandro Volta in 1800, the decomposition of water in oxygen and hydrogen through the use of a galvanic cell was observed in 1802 by Sir Humprey Davy. Nearly 40 years later, William Grove confirmed the reversibility of this process when he presented the first manufactured fuel cell. Almost 200 years later, fuel cells are embedded in space shuttles and are used for backup power supplies in niche markets, with use in portable applications just over the horizon.

Many technological options are available for fuel cells, which mainly depend on the cell's environmental temper­ature. Experts believe that miniature fuel-cell technology will most likely be derived from PEM (proton or polymer exchange membrane) technology whereby protons are ex­tract from hydrogen or methanol, known as direct methanol fuel cells (DMFC).

The major players in the micro-fuel-cell arena are the integrated Japanese and Korean companies such as Toshiba, Casio, Hitachi, NEC, Sony, and Samsung. U.S. firms tike Motorola, Intel, Hewlett-Packard, Duracell, and BIG are also present, with startups supported by venture capital: MTI, Neah Power, Manhattan Scientifics, Medis, and IFTC, among others. In Germany, Smart Fuel Cell GmbH or Novars may eventually play an eminent role.

No day passes without new announcements that miniature fuel cells will be integrated into various products like wireless handsets, notebook computers, cameras, camcorders, and PDAs. However, it seems that the cells won't reach the mass market for portable devices any time soon, which means that the best-case scenario doesn't show any significant growth for portable fuel cells before 2008. Most of the current prototypes are still a long way away.
Nevertheless, on a long-term basis, micro fuel cells will be a success. In 2010, with only 4% penetration in portable PCs and 2.5% in cell phones, revenue from the micro-fuel-cell market could be higher than $100 million.

A related market that has a huge potential is for replace­ment cartridges (that carry the fuel). That market could be 10 times higher than the cells themselves. Some surveys have been conducted regarding cartridge prices, and it seems there's a price limit under which end users will readily accept the cartridges. The bottom line is that micro fuel cells must get down to about 50(£/Wh to achieve success.