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Fuel Cells Could Be Next Power Source For Laptops

ABI Research says some Japanese companies are pumping millions into R&D, and that by 2012, as many as 15% of laptops could use fuel cells for power.

Japanese technology companies are pumping hundreds of millions of dollars into R&D on fuel cells to power laptops, PDAs, and phones, a research firm said Wednesday, in an effort to keep up with the insatiable power demand of electronics.

Fuel-cell technology, developed by NASA during the opening years of the space program, creates electricity from chemical reactions between fuels--such as hydrogen or methanol--and an oxidant. They've been touted as the power source for everything from future automobiles to in-home generators that take a house off the grid.

By 2012, said Atakan Ozbek, director of energy research at ABI Research, 10% to 15% of laptops sold worldwide will rely on micro fuel cells, not batteries, for their power. "Even though processor vendors like Intel and power management manufacturers such as Texas Instruments are giving us solutions and better chips for longer battery life," said Ozbek, "device makers are continually adding functionality that means more energy is needed. That trend is never going to change."

Over the long term, he said, battery technology just isn't up to the chore--and fuel cells may provide a way to extend power lifespan.

"With new applications, whether it's 3G or Wi-Fi or DVD, we need more power," Ozbek said. "We need six to eight, or eight to 10 hours of continuous power, something we just can't get from the current technology."

Prime candidates for longer-life power supplies in portable devices, he said, include mobile workers and the military.

Micro fuel cells as small as a disposable cigarette lighter could be the answer. Using an 80-20 mix of water and methanol, they promise to deliver enough power to keep the next several generations of laptops and PDAs running for a longer time. Today's laptops draw 10 to 15 watts of power, but future models will be even hungrier, needing 20 to 25 watts. Micro fuel cells focus on providing up to 100 watts of power.

Japanese firms such as Samsung, Toshiba, and Sony are among those investing in fuel cell technologies; according to Ozbek, they're in a better position to bring their work to fruition. "On one level, these firms make chips,' he said. "On another they make components. And they make complete products. They know where they're going, and this gives them a competitive edge in the race."

Although his study looked far down the road, Ozbek said to expect small-sized trials of fuel cell-powered laptops as early as 2005. He projects that about 2,000 units will be put into play next year, used almost exclusively within the Japanese companies betting heavily on fuel cells.

The fuel cells themselves are disposable--not rechargeable like today's lithium-ion batteries in laptops--but that's not an insurmountable challenge, said Ozbek. Distribution channels are already in place for such items, and may take the form of agreements with major firms such as Bic and Gillette, which know how to sell disposable products. Users might balk at the idea of replacing, rather than recharging, but Ozbek pointed to the success of similar models, such as ink-jet cartridges, as a harbinger.

But there are many hurdles that haven't yet been faced. "Not everything is a bed of roses," said Ozbek. He cited environmental concerns, the lack of standards, and the need to come up with regulations on shipping fuel cells similar to those now in place for batteries and disposable lighters.

"What's needed is a couple of million [micro fuel cells] out there," Ozbek said. "Once that happens, manufacturers can increase capacity in a very short time."

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