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Fuel Cells/Portable/Portable Fuel Cells 051108
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At Power 2002, four contenders in the race tried to answer that question.
by
Shirley Georgi

Adobe Photoshop Image
Direct Methanol Fuel Cells (DMFCs) have made their way into the limelight, and at Power 2002 their presence drew hundreds of attendees packed  in a room awaiting to hear if MTI MicroFuel Cells, Inc., PolyFuel, Direct Methanol Fuel Cell Corporation or  Motorola Labs was going to announce that its DMFC was ready.  Attendees were curious to see if  DMFC providers were  able to challenge the battery market as the new answer to power  for portables. Perhaps the answers received  could be best described as “forward looking statements,” which of course are a “safe harbor.”

Status in late 2002

MTI (Mechanical Technology, Inc.)  Micro Fuel Cells - Dr. William Acker, presenter and former president and CEO of  MTI, is now devoting his full time efforts on the technical development and business opportunities for the micro fuel cell,  the company’s  answer as the power source for the handheld revolution.  MTI Micro completed its third prototype in August 2002; the unit has demonstrated 0.24 Watt hours per cubic centimeter of  fuel consumed and is projected to yield up to five  Watt hours of energy content. The prototype includes a replaceable methanol fuel cartridge, requires no pumps and works in any orientation - even upside down.  The prototype features a completely integrated system that combines the fuel cell, a DC-DC converter, a replaceable fuel cartridge, and controls for both the charging process and the fuel feed.  The prototype is not a battery replacement but is designed to function as an auxiliary charger for a battery extension pack. This micro fuel cell can be scaled  to applications ranging from chargers to battery replacements, for a  wide range of portable devices.    Dr. Acker states, “...we believe that ours is the first simplified system without active cathode water collection to run with 100 percent methanol and eliminate the need to carry water in the fuel cartridge. (See cover photo.)   

However, the question still remains, “What is the best approach to achieve successful commercialization?”  MTI Micro believes that  the progress can best be made through strategic alliances.  To date, they have a joint development agreement with DuPont. Dupont has also made an equity investment in the company. A federal government subsidy is also a plus; and the company has been funded with a $4.6 million award from the Advanced Technology Program of the National Institute of Standards to enhance development of  micro fuel cell systems. In addition to seeking success in the portable world, Micro Fuel Cells  is also  placing “eggs in other baskets,” and as a result, a teaming agreement has been made with ATK to explore military markets.  (Having former defense secretary, William Perry, become a  member of the board  is deemed  a definite plus for this area.)   Recently announced this past month, MTI Micro  has entered into an agreement with Harris Corporation.  Harris will purchase DMFCs from MTI Micro for potential use in Harris’ FalconRII  tactical handheld radio.

PolyFuel, a “Spin-off” company of SRI (Stanford Research Institute), has their own proprietary DMFC technologies. In a difficult funding environment, they have recently secured $15.5 million in financing.  The financing round, led by Vancouver based Ventures West, included Chrysalix Energy LP, Intel Capital, Mayfield and Technology Partners.
PolyFuel touts that it produced the world’s first DMFC prototype that replaced a Lithium-ion battery on a mobile phone.  As their technology has progressed, the company states that it has product designs that achieve 2-3 times the current battery energy capacity.  In the 5 prototypes that were built to power a cell phone, the company achieved 1.4 Watts  which would provide up to five hours of talk time.

Since the Power 2002 conference in September , Polyfuel has switched its emphasis from powering mobile phones to powering laptop computers as a market entry point in the shorter term.   Their website states  that by 2006, the market for portable power will double to over $9 billion.  They also state that 73% of notebook users are likely to select a fuel cell  technology vs.a laptop offering only a conventional battery.  Given promising signals from the market, PolyFuel expects prototypes of marketable products will be produced in 2003 and 2004 , with high volume production commencing in late 2005 and, early 2006.
Adobe Photoshop ImageThe heart of a micro fuel cell includes a central membrane between two electrodes each coated with a catalyst.  Electrical current is produced when methanol and its accompanying water is oxidized on the catalyst of the anode. The waste product is carbon dioxide. Electrons from the hydrogen atoms pass to the external electrical circuit to  power the cell phone. Protons from the hydrogen migrate into the proton exchange membrane which separates the anode and cathode. At the cathode catalyst layer, the hydrogen protons combine with electrons from the external electrical circuit and oxygen from external air to form waste water.  (Diagram is courtesy of MTI Micro Fuel Cells.)
Polyfuel’s products are based on fuel cell membranes that were invented and patented by the SRI.  The company also has over 30 fuel cell scientists and engineers including three of the original inventor team from SRI.  PolyFuel has an exclusive license to the SRI patents and it is aggressively expanding its  intellectual portfolio.  The company believes that its proprietary membrane provides  PolyFuel with a critical differentiator in the competitive fuel cell industry. In particular,  the PolyFuel membrane permits less methanol and water to “cross over” unreacted from the anode to the cathode.  This enables systems to be more efficient which leads to higher energy density and lower cost products.  In addition, Polyfuel states that the membrane material is substantially less expensive than exiting commercial fuel cell membranes.


Recently, the Department of Transportation (DOT) has approved the use to Polyfuel’s new fuel cell on airplanes because it features only low concentrations of methanol fuel.  However, one is not likely to see a Polyfuel “pack” on an airplane in the next year because the company is not quite ready for prime time commercialization.


Direct Methanol Fuel Cell Corporation (DMFCC) was organized early in 2002 to commercialize the DMFC technology developed at the NASA/Caltech Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and the University of Southern California.  As a result, DMFCC is a portfolio company of ViaSpace Technologies LLC.  (ViaSpace commercializes technologies from Caltech, JPL and other university and government laboratories.) DMFCC has acquired the rights to 26 issued  and 40 pending U.S. and foreign patents on the direct methanol fuel cell technology.  These patents include the fundamental patent for using methanol dissolved in water as the fuel with a solid polymer membrane electrolyte, as well as patents on a new membrane, fuel cell designs and methanol sensor.  
Adobe Photoshop ImageDMFCC’s patents are crucial to the business model and are a result of over $10 million of R&D investment.  Dr. Carl Kukkonen, DMFCC’s CEO and presenter at Power 2002 stated, “Several companies are pursuing direct methanol fuel cells without the benefit of this intellectual property and their products may infringe on one or more of the patents which have issued in the U.S. and Australia, and are pending in Europe, Japan, China and Korea.  DMFCC together with Caltech and USC (University of Southern California) intend to strategically enforce their intellectual property rights.”  DMFCC is actively seeking investors and strategic partners for its activities.
Motorola -  At the Solid State Research Center, Chenggang Xie, presenter at Power 2002 and a principal engineer, is working on a methanol-based fuel cell system for portable communications. Motorola’s initial design  target is for a 100mW to 1 Watt system for portable electronics with a scale up to 20W eventually for larger systems.  The Company’s Low Temperature Cofired Ceramic Technology has been shown to power or charge a range of portable electronic wireless systems.

Unlike some of the companies developing direct methanol fuel cells, Motorola is cautious in its time frame for commercialization. The technical staff sees continuing improvements in their efforts of system integration, system miniaturization and stack engineering and fundamental research on the MEA (membrane electrode assembly).  Recently, they have partnered with Superior MicroPowders, LLC to work on a NIST (National Institute of Standardand Technology)  award to remove existing barriers to commercialization  such as cost prohibitive precious metal loadings and unreliable manufacturing methodologies.   Motorola  looks at a timetable for consumer use of DMFCs as being between three to five years in the future.    

Competition, competition, competition

But, these four companies are just samples of those working to commercialize  fuel cell technology for the portable world.  In November, Medis Technologies, Ltd. announced that it had achieved the technical level in its fuel cell performance to provide continuous power for its first planned commercial product - a Power Pack to provide uninterrupted power for users of cell phones and PDAs.  Using Direct Liquid Ethanol fuel cell technology, Medis is not sitting idly by; they are seeking alliances.  The company recently announced that it has  had meetings with eleven major U.S. companies involved with portable electronic devices and with 37  such companies in Hong Kong and Japan.

Meanwhile, other business organizations have made inroads into the market.  In August 2001, Sony entered the fuel cell market;  that same month, NEC announced their development of a miniature fuel cell; the company is working  to produce fuel cells using carbon nanotubes for hydrogen storage.   Last year at Power 2001, Robert Hockaday  of Manhattan Scientifics, Inc. discussed  the  proprietary MicroFuel CellTM portable charger,  the Power HolsterTM fueled from a sealed ampule having 1-Watt of power. (See BD #54 p.10.)  By October, NEC was talking about its demonstration of a fan running from a miniature fuel cell. And, in 2002, Toshiba demonstrated their GENIO PDA powered by a fuel cell and now has plans to install fuel cells in PDA products.  Three months ago, the Kyodo news service in Japan stated that Toshiba would market a fuel cell battery-operated notebook computer by 2004 with an operation run time of approximately 10 hours.   

In Europe, Smart Fuel Cell GmbH has developed a  methanol fuel cell with cartridges to power a 15 Watt notebook computer for 10 hours.  The company is anticipating sales of about 2,000 this year and in 2004 is looking to produce 100,000 fuel cells. Back in Pacific region,  Samsung, Corp. and Casio Computer Co., Ltd. also see promise with their fuel cell development for this market.

Is it a win-win for everybody?

Late in October, Intel announced the formation of a “Mobile PC Extended Battery Life Working Group” for the purpose of looking for a better power solution for laptop computers. Intel’s announcement said that “advances in the Lithium-ion battery technology - the mainstay of mobile PC power sources - are not keeping up with emerging notebook usage modes.”  The suggestion was made that fuel cells could be central to “cut the AC cord.” Such comments certainly encourage the fuel cell developers to forge ahead.

Mr. Lifton, Chairman and CEO of Medis Technologies, states,  “There are already over one billion users of portable electronic devices, growing at a rate of over 200 million users a year.” Thus said, there should be room for everyone who wants to participate in a in a razor sharp market where competition is keen and major challenges still lie ahead such as...

Production issues and costs - At Power 2002,  Kurt Kelty, Director of Business Development - Battery R&D Center for Panasonic Technologies,  reported on  “Small Fuel Cell vs. Li-ion Battery:  A Battery Manufacturer’s View.” In his presentation  he  listed the  technical challenges  for DMFCs  in:
- Power output control -specifically, change at various temperatures and start up at low temperatures.
- Reliability -dust, fuel impurities and  dry-up during storage
- Infrastructure -delivery of fuel and a fuel exchange system
- Safety - eliminate noxious effluents i.e., formaldehyde and  CO
- Fuel cell system design - air intake, water disposal, heat release, and integration with battery or capacitor to handle peak power

In addition, Mr. Kelty stated that the DMFC system cost would be expensive because of the catalyst and membrane.  The needed platinum on the electrode  has averaged $428.49 an ounce over the past ten years.  If the  fuel cell is included with either a battery or a capacitor, as in a hybrid system, the cost will obviously rise.

Competition from Lithium chemistries- The “balance-of-plant” in the creating the DMFC is complicated.  The questions then arises, “Can DMFC compete on cost with Li-ion?” or   “Will the additional functionality needed  in the new portables require a DMFC, and a battery,  for successful operation?”

The price of Lithium-ion cylindrical 18650 cells has come down dramatically.  In 2001 the cost was about $.33 per Watt hour and is anticipated to drop to one half that by 2010.
Adobe Photoshop ImageMotorola has chosen the direct methanol fuel cell because of its “simplicity”;  the DMFC is  air breathing or has forced air (is not pressurized), works in low temperatures, has only liquid pumping and requires no hydrogen handling. Recently, Motorola demonstrated its prototype of an integrated ceramic-based miniature DMFC system. (Schematic is courtesy  of Motorola’s Solid State Research Center.)
 Improvements continue to be made.  New electronic packages  have boosted gains in power efficiency.  Work is continuing to be pursued to increase energy density.  New anode materials are being explored to replace the carbon system; examples can be seen in new alloys such as tin and aluminum and  in new compounds such as SnO; Lithium-metal is also  being investigated.  New cathode materials such as sulfur to replace the  LiMOx system  are showing promise.

Retail Costs -  Although none of the four DMFC companies ventured into a  topic relating to the retail prices for their  products, Medis Technologies, a new company focusing on commercializing its direct liquid fuel cell technology in the mobile marketplace, has stated that its fuel cell Power Pack  will be introduced at a competitive cost model of $2.50 to $3.50 a Watt (?-BD.)  Thus, the Power Pack could be retailed to the consumer for as little as $15 and $20; with each fuel cartridge planned to retail for one dollar.  This could bring about a “razor blade” type of price strategy.
Adobe Photoshop ImageKurt Kelty of Panasonic Technologies thinks that initial  methanol fuel cell developers may want to initially target markets that do not require air transport.  He sees entry of these fuel cells in markets that are less price sensitive and can handle low peak power loads such as in cell phone chargers.  From the viewpoint of a battery producer, the DMFC has a very high performance potential, but significant technical breakthroughs, cost challenges, and  user interface issues must be solved before it can be considered a replacement for rechargeable batteries.
One such company which has tried to manufacturer, market and sell disposable backup power packs  is Electric Fuel Company.  They designed their backup, portable, disposable Zinc-air power source for many existing cellphones for such companies as Nokia, Palm, Ericsson and Motorola. Electric Fuel spent $$$ to introduce its ‘INSTANT POWER’ product and  marketed it at   the Consumer Electronic Show in 2001Each Zinc-air power pack had to be designed for a specific model of an ‘existing’ phone.  Of course, the ‘existing’ models were only on the market for  short duration before new ones with enhanced features replaced them, thus requiring new battery package designs.     
Why methanol ?

Methanol cartridges allow users to recharge these fuel cells on the fly....they are environmentally friendly alternatives to batteries...they will not present hazardous waste disposal.  Methanol is extremely energy dense and economical fuel that is also readily available and extremely safe as evidenced by its widespread use in automobile windshield wipe fluid and many other household commercial products.
                                Rick Cooper -PolyFuel  
Just recently, Electric Fuel  decided to discontinue the product line, INSTANT POWERR, and concentrate on other markets for  Zinc-air technology. Its announcement read, “Company Discontinues Unprofitable Consumer Battery Operations to Focus on Defense and Security Business.”  Looking at Electric Fuel’s past marketing model along with  its costs and sales might be a valuable exercise for companies trying to enter a market commercializing a ‘similar’  product.     

Patents - With so many companies exploring the mobile, portable consumer fuel cell market, the number of patents involved in this technology is tremendous.  MTI Micro states that they have received  two key parents with 30 patents pending, or in process,  in the development  of this technology.  Meanwhile,  Direct Methanol Fuel Cell Corporation has 26 issued and 40 pending.   For all companies looking to commercialize DMFCs, patents are helpful  in establishing credibility and in enticing investors to take a serious look at supporting  this new enterprise.  However, once a product “takes off” and is taking hold in the marketplace, the legal staff at each company  will be carefully examining competitor’s products to see if there are infringements.  There is no technology that has been able to escape  this fate of potential  litigation , and each company can only take precautionary measures with solid patent foundations and licensing agreements.
Adobe Photoshop ImageThis data from the  Darnell Group tracks power packs for portable electronic devices. Projections for future years are based on “expected non-recession growth rates.”  Because smart fuel cells are projected to be a factor by 2005, the term “battery pack” is being renamed “power pack.”  Darnell’s report states, “As current rechargeable battery technology cannot catch up with the ever-increasing (energy) demands of portable devices, small fuel cells promise much high(er) energy density than rechargeable lithium batteries.  According to the current research results, portable Direct Methanol Fuel Cells provide five times higher energy density than rechargeable Lithium-ion batteries, and scientists are confident they can further improve the fuel cell’s  energy density even more.  (Data and information from “Power Packs for Portable Electronic Devices: Worldwide Forecasts, Applications, Chemistries, Threats and Competitive Environment,” http:// www.Darnell.com.)  
The momentum is here to meet the challenge

Fuel cells for the mobile world  is a relatively new entrepreneurial  industry which, with the proper funding, may be turning the corner toward commercialization.  There are currently no off-the-shelf products for direct comparison.  Fine tuning  each company’s technology and products, followed by mass production,  are the next challenges.   But, as Dr. Acker of MTI Micro said, “The momentum is here.”  His company feels it has the right market, the right time, the right team, the right technology and the right partners.  Based on the enthusiasm of  the  DMFC companies  presenting papers  at Power 2002, each could have resounded a similar statement.  
Regulatory Issues for Methanol

The Department of Transportation (DOT) considers methanol a “Hazard Class 3” substance which is flammable and combustible.  The current passenger airline limit is a one liter/package in checked baggage only or shipped as cargo.   In general, the DOT has not favored refillable cartridges.  

John A. Paterson, an attorney in  Denver specializing in environment and energy said, “Fuels have long been regulated, but fuel cell devices and fuel cartridges are new applications lacking their own regulatory requirements and approvals.”1

Some of the other regulatory areas which must be convinced of methanol safety include:

- ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organization)
-  UN Committee of Experts on Transportation of Dangerous Goods
- IATA rules (International Air Transport Association)
- USPO (United States Post Office)
- Other federal/state environmental programs (i.e., OSHA and CERCLA)

1 Statement from conference, ‘Eye for Fuel Cells,’ “Fuel Cells for Portable Applications,” 10/21/2002

ED Note:                  What Methanol Fuel Cell Concerns Are Not Highly Publicized
The technical challenge of commercializing a methanol fuel cell is so difficult that it needs no further restrictions from ancillary problems. Two future concerns, should these technical and business hurdles ever be overcome, include:

Environmental discharge

The principal hazardous emission of methanol fuel cells is carbon dioxide. Added to the air, it has been identified as a major contributor to global warming. A principal argument to negate this concern is the miniscule amount of CO2 emitted by one small fuel cell. Secondary arguments include the U.S. position on ignoring the Kyoto Protocol and a variety of ‘worse pollution hazards’. Carbon dioxide sequestration is possible, but in the case of a portable fuel cell, implementation is not practical due to cost and size.
Methanol Poisoning

BD reader Dr. Nick Pietrangelo, a career anesthesiologist, has brought the awareness of methanol’s poisonous status to the staff. Researching methanol’s metabolic properties provides evidence that, when ingested, methanol leads to metabolic acidosis (leading to hemorrhage, shock, severe dehydration, sepsis, diabetic ketoacidosis and respiratory acidosis), blindness, plus liver and kidney disease. Methanol, unlike other hazardous substances such as gasoline, has no objectionable smell or taste. It has been used as an alcoholic beverage substitute with disastrous results.

However, an argument in favor of using methanol for fuel cell power centers on it useage in low concentrations which are stored in sealed containers, thus reducing medical ingestion risks.             DKG
BD