Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. is working on a prototype of a mobile phone powered by fuel cells, boosting the technology's chances of making it into global markets.
The South Korean company has entered a joint development effort with MTI MicroFuel Cells Inc., based in Albany, N.Y. MTI, a subsidiary of Mechanical Technology Inc., said Thursday the exclusive deal has the two companies developing MTI's methanol-based Mobion fuel cells for a series of cellular-phone prototypes, as well as mobile-phone accessories.
Batteries based on rechargeable lithium ion or lithium polymer technologies power most of today's mobile phones, as well as most other handheld devices. Among the biggest negatives of the batteries, however, are the acids and heavy metals contain, which are harmful to the environment. MTI claims its rechargeable fuel cells last longer than traditional batteries and are more eco-friendly.
Fuel cells, however, have their own problems, Chris Ambrosio, analyst for Strategy Analytics said Friday. The batteries in their current form are too big for most cellular phones, and the technology is perceived as more dangerous to the user.
Methanol is highly flammable, and safety advocates believe the chemistry in fuel cells could pose a problem if they leak or overheat. While Ambrosio believes the manufacturers can make safe fuel cells, they probably will need to go an extra mile in convincing government regulators in countries like the United States.
"I have not heard of a fuel cell exploding in anyone's pockets, but there's a significant public relations and safety issue perception that the industry is going to have to overcome," Ambrosio said.
By investing research and development in fuel cells, Samsung is showing that it believes the technology has potential. The biggest benefit in having the No. 3 handset maker behind the technology would be in getting it in more markets around the globe, Ambrosio said. Currently, fuel cell powered phones are limited mostly to Japan, where carriers NTT DoCoMo and KDDI are big supporters of the technology.
"Samsung would be the first to bring it out into a broader global market, such as the U.S. market," Ambrosio said.
Samsung has committed to investing $1 million to the R&D effort, which would remain exclusive through the second quarter of 2007, BusinessWeek magazine reported.
There's little doubt that today's batteries will need to be improved dramatically in order to keep up with the power-hungry features being added to mobile phones, handheld computers, digital cameras, and many other consumer devices.
MTI, a small company with $8 million in sales last year, is pushing fuel cells hard as the technology most likely to replace lithium batteries, which the company paints as reaching their peak. Some experts disagree, however, saying research in lithium polymer batteries in particular is likely to keep them viable for quite awhile.
"It's not advancing in leaps and bounds, but the death of lithium polymer is a long ways away," Ambrosio said.