April 7, 2008 4:00 AM PDT

At MTI Micro, pushing fuel cells for portables

For years, companies have promised that methanol fuel cells for powering cell phones and other gadgets are just around the corner. Now MTI Micro says it's finally true.

The fuel cell maker says it completed a number of working prototypes last year and will spend 2008 tooling up a factory to mass-produce fuel cells. Then in 2009, the first ones will appear, CEO Peng Lim said in an interview last week.

In 2006, Lim initiated a company reorganization to make sure MTI Micro could stay on track.

"We stepped back. It was not good to keep telling people we are going to ship next year," he said.

The company's goal is to start displacing lithium ion batteries with fuel cells in portable electronics. (Other competitors, such as Silicon Valley's Oorja, meanwhile, are concocting methanol fuel cells for powering small vehicles.)

"There is still one wire left in portable devices today, and that's the charging wire," said Lim. "And the battery system is not efficient at all. You talk for three hours on your mobile phone and then you have to charge it for half an hour."

The main advantage of fuel cells is that they will last twice as long as a battery pack of the same size. MTI, for instance, has come up with a fuel cell that snaps onto the bottom of an SLR camera. It is the same size as the add-on lithium ion battery packs used by professional photographers. The lithium ion packs allow photographers to snap off 1,400 to 2,200 photos, depending on whether a flash is used. MTI says its cell will let photographers snap off 2,800 to more than 4,000 shots.

"Methanol is the most energetic of the materials with the least amount of trouble for making a product."
--George Relan, MTI Micro VP

That's more than most photographers need, but might help professionals shooting events like the Olympics. One photographer told Lim that he carries five battery packs. A fuel cell would let him carry one pack and a few fuel cartridges.

The recharge time is almost nonexistent. Powering up a fuel cell-based phone only requires squirting in some new fuel or putting in a new cartridge. Methanol fuel cells create energy when oxygen and methanol react with catalysts in a membrane inside the fuel cell. The byproducts are electrons, water, and carbon dioxide. (The amount of carbon dioxide, though, is fairly small.)

By contrast, a battery takes a few hours to charge because it sucks electrons out of a socket. Additionally, methanol won't burst into flames unless you put a light to it. In 2006, Sony had to recall lithium ion batteries because of the danger of fire.

"Methanol is the most energetic of the materials with the least amount of trouble for making a product," says George Relan, vice president of corporate development at MTI. "You don't have to pressurize it, store it in cold temperatures, or make a powder of it--like you need with hydrogen--which you then have to mix with water to get a reaction. Methanol contains 5,000 watt hour energy per liter."

MTI Micro methanol fuel cells

Additionally, MTI says it has come up with a way to recycle the water within the fuel cell, thereby eliminating the need for a plumbing mechanism to get rid of the water that is the byproduct from the reaction. This makes their fuel cell smaller than earlier versions.

The company is a bit cagey on which products will come out first, but the prototypes offer clues. The company, for instance, has developed a line of universal chargers. Connect the charger to a cell phone or MP3 player with a USB cord and the charger will re-juice it. MTI also has a fuel cell for SLR cameras and a cell phone with a built-in fuel cell. It has been working with Samsung on various projects.

Is it a green fuel? Yes and no. Methanol is made from natural gas, a fossil fuel. (It can also be made out of wood.) The devices also exhale carbon dioxide. But, as stated earlier, it's a small amount of carbon dioxide. Lithium ion batteries need grid electricity, which leads to fumes at the power plant. Methanol, MTI adds, is also biodegradable. The cost of the fuel cells will initially be higher than the cost of conventional batteries. The lifetime will be the same, according to the company.

See more CNET content tagged:
fuel cell, cell phone, SLR, battery, camera


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Good idea, Bad idea
What he's holding is a micro turbine engine powered by methanol. Frankly, putting an exhaust up to my face from my electronic device is not a viable option. Most, if not all portable electronics have closed cases to help prevent dust from getting into it. This will make the SLR bulky due to the ventilation system required for the power.

Frankly, I can see more people using the methanol to make their crystal Meth or selling it on the street.

Sorry to say, this falls under Bad Idea.
Posted by Maarek Stele (170 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Not as bad as you think.
The standard battery for the shown camera is a 7.4v, 1350mAH battery, so just shy of 10WH of power. The battery grip the fuel cell is compared to holds 2 batteries, so 20WH of power. At 5kWH/L energy density (assuming the stated number is the output of the fuel cell, not raw energy density,) 4 mL of methanol is consumed. At around .8 g/mL, that's about 3.6 g of methanol. There are 44 grams of CO2 and 36 g H2O produced for every 32 grams of methanol (CH3OH,) so 4.95 g of CO2 and 4.05 g of water are produced for the 2800-4000 pictures taken. This should give at least an hour of picture taking time (at about 1FPS, roughly the write speed of pro digital cameras when shooting raw, continuously for the hour.) In the same time, the photographer will exhale somewhere between about 24 and 40 g of C02. So having this "exhaust" in your face will probably not be noticeable.
Also to put that in context, a 20oz soda or 2 pints of beer contain about the same amount of CO2 as this puts off on a full fill.
Posted by skrubol (181 comments )
Link Flag
What is this the fifth press release from MTI Micro about another use for their PLANNED fuel cell? It would be news if someone actually did a report on its reliability and usability or if they actually started selling them. Like 90% of the "news" in the Green Tech section, this is not news.
Posted by vanbrua (7 comments )
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Oops, I posted on the wrong MTI story.
Posted by vanbrua (7 comments )
Link Flag
Posted by 3en (1 comment )
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HOW IS THIS A GOOD IDEA??? Add another million carbon dioxide emitting devices into the marketplace? A small amount of CO2 x millions = BIG amount of CO2. How did this ever get considered a green technology? There must be a better way.
Posted by drblevy13 (4 comments )
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Wow... I'm dumbfounded... wow. You people have no idea of the big picture. Before you freak out about something you should think about it and know the facts first. The question you should be asking on this technology is.... Is methanol fuel cells more efficent and cleaner than the energy we get from the wall that we use to charge our lithium ion batteries? I don't see it in this report but i'm thinking theres gotta be something to this technology. Plus there's other factors like size transportation etc.

Things need to be taken into perspective before you jump on them. What??? Radiation??? thats bad lets ban everything that emits it!!! Kiss your monitors and other electronics goodbye people. (k)

You all also exhale small amounts of CO2 when you breath, so I you should do the world a favour and stop breathing. ;-)

Think! (y)
Posted by sportbikerr1 (26 comments )
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The REAL question is, how much will the refill cartridges cost? it costs what a few cents to recharge your cell phone today by plugging it in. I doubt these refill cartridges will be cost effective, unless you are a photographer at the olympics and need to take 8,000 pictures a day. This is just another technology solely design to nickel and dime us to death.
Posted by MarkDRichards (4 comments )
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Thank you Sportbikerr1 for educating the physician that we all exhale CO2. The entire paradigm of methanol cells is flawed. We should be thinking above and beyond; technologies using hydrogen fuel cells are MUCH cleaner than methanol. The emission from hydrogen cells is water vapor. Albeit water vapor is as much of a greenhouse gas as CO2, it can be condensed to liquid water. This is true renewable energy. To advocate millions of CO2 producing devices without having an idea regarding its environmental impact is just as bad as the status quo.
Posted by drblevy13 (4 comments )
Reply Link Flag
I agree this is a cool technology and interesting idea. But I agree those that say this is not a green techonology. Even if by today standards it produces less emission than pulling a battery into the wall (which I doubt is true). Then it will be polluting when our electric is more green. I know batteries themselves are toxic when throw away, but they can be recycle. So at the end of the day I would rather have a recharge battery then use methonal, please remove this article out of green tech.
Posted by fredtheviking (147 comments )
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I'm sorry to point this out, but the problem is NOT that battery technology is 'inefficient'. The problem is that devices today suck too much power, especially laptops, doing things that they should NOT be sucking power for.
Maybe SIPPING power, but not sucking it like a camel at an oasis in the desert.
Posted by Lerianis (1210 comments )
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