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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Tuesday, July 29, 2003

Fuel cells may soon be in personal electronics

By Michelle Kessler
USA Today

Fuel cell technology meant to replace gasoline in cars might first find a home in laptops and cell phones — more than doubling battery life.

NEC, Motorola, Toshiba and others are designing fuel cells to power laptops for five hours or more — compared with two or three for conventional batteries. They also could work for cell phones and personal digital assistants, or PDAs.

Several prototypes, including a fuel cell powered laptop from NEC, have been unveiled. Early versions of fuel cell tech products could be sold next year, most likely in Japan, the companies say. It will be several years before they are widely available in the United States.

Battery life often holds tech products back, and fuel cells could provide a boost. Some screens on cell phones and PDAs, for example, are purposely made dim to conserve power. Scientists have already squeezed about 90 percent of the improvements they can from today's batteries, although they're working on breakthroughs, says Donald Sadoway of Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Fuel cells are like tiny engines that generate power through chemical reactions. If you need more power, you put in more "gas" — in most cases, a mixture of methanol, or wood alcohol, and other chemicals. The methanol will likely be housed in a replaceable cartridge, much as printer ink is.

The technology, around for more than a decade, has yet to take off because it is:

• Expensive. Most fuel cells use platinum and other pricey materials. A fuel cell powerful enough to run a car costs $300,000, says Elton Cairns, a University of California, Berkeley, engineering professor. Automakers say they'll build an affordable fuel cell car by 2010.

Because a laptop uses much less power, cost is less prohibitive. Start-up Neah Power Systems says, within several years, laptop fuel cells will wholesale for about $75 — the same as today's batteries.

• Dependent on rare fuel. Fuel cell companies have a vexing chicken-or-egg problem. No one wants to sell fuel until there's demand, and there won't be demand until fuel is widely available.

• Flammable. Airlines are unlikely to allow passengers to carry methanol canisters because of fire dangers, researchers say. That would be a big blow, because laptops are frequently used by business travelers. Companies developing them say the fuel is no more dangerous than liquor and perfume.