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2/7/2005
03:16 PM
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Fuel Cells Move From Batteries To Battery Chargers

A company says it's making chargers that run on fuel cells. The chargers revive conventional batteries in handheld devices.

Talk of fuel-cell batteries for handheld devices is being diluted by talk of new fuel cells as chargers for conventional batteries. For example, Medis Technologies Ltd. says it's ready to demonstrate a fuel cell that can charge the conventional batteries in mobile phones, PDAs, and other similar devices.

Fuel cells are gaining significance because they can operate longer than conventional batteries, they contain fewer toxic materials than conventional batteries, and in most cases they can be refilled with fuel when they run out of juice. Used as a charger, fuel cells free users of handheld devices from the need for a wall outlet to keep the machines running.

Medis' Power Pack is a disposable fuel cell designed to give a cell phone, for example, three to five full recharges, says Robert Lifton, chairman and CEO. It can also be attached to phones and PDAs, powering them the same as a conventional power cord would. A demo has been scheduled for March 16 in New York.

The company says it has delivered to General Dynamics Corp. 16 Power Packs that produce 5 watts and up to 5 volts of electricity. General Dynamics is expected to test the units in ruggedized PDAs in March and April.

The fuel-cell industry is moving away from early plans to make fuel-cell batteries, because they can't be recharged with a cord plugged into a socket, Lifton says. Instead, it's building fuel-cell chargers, giving device users the option of plugging their conventional batteries into a wall outlet if they need to.

And, Medis claims, its fuel-cell technology is superior to NASA Apollo-era fuel-cell technology that's still being used in the industry. Those products incorporate expensive metals, multiple fuel cells, and methanol as the fuel. The expensive metals have been minimized in the Power Pack, the charger has only one fuel cell, and the fuel is a mix of borohydride, alcohol, water, and alkaline, Lifton says.

Methanol is flammable at 51 degrees F, he says, and his fuel is flammable at 450 degrees, making the Power Pack safer to use. And eliminating the metals and the stack of cells, Lifton says, makes the Power Pack lighter and less expensive. At full production, planned for the second half of this year, the Power Pack will cost consumers $10 to $20 each, compared with the $100 he says a conventional fuel-cell charger would run.

Medis also is working on a refuelable version of the Power Pack. Volume production of those models is expected to begin during the second half of next year.

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