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