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MTI Micro CEO Peng Lim shows off the company's snap-on SLR camera fuel cell. The company will begin rolling out fuel cells such as this in 2009 to replace lithium ion batteries in various consumer electronics.  (Source: Hanna Sistek/CNET
MTI Micro plans to tool up mass-production factory for consumer electronics fuel cells

Fuel cells are one technology that is full of promise, but has yet to deliver commercially in the consumer marketMTI Micro hopes to change that.  The fuel cell maker in 2006 underwent a company-wide reorganization, with the intent of keeping it on track towards the fuel cell goal.  Says CEO Peng Lim, who spearheaded the effort, "We stepped back. It was not good to keep telling people we are going to ship next year."

With Lim's guidance, the company focused on creating a marketable product in the short term.  Now Lim has announced that MTI Micro finished its working prototypes last year and is working on building a factory to mass produce small consumer electronics methanol-powered fuel cells.  He stated that this factory will come online in 2009 and units will hit the consumer market the same year. 

MTI Micro is choosing to focus on consumer electronics -- in particular replacing small lithium ion batteries.  Many of its competitors are looking to power cars with their designs, while MTI Micro focuses instead on items like cell phones and SLR cameras.  Lim believes that the company's fuel cells will eventually deliver superior efficiency to traditional batteries.  Said Lim, "There is still one wire left in portable devices today, and that's the charging wire.  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."

When they reach their potential, fuel cells promise longer battery life as they can run for around twice as long as a lithium ion battery of a comparable size.  For example an add-on lithium ion SLR camera battery snaps onto the camera to increase lifetime to a total of 1,400 to 2,200 photos, depending on if a flash is used.  MTI developed a fuel cell which clips onto the SLR similarly and offers an even better lifetime of 2,800 to more than 4,000 shots. 

While few photographers will need so many shots, some photographers at sporting or fashion events may need the extra lifespan.  One photographer reported that they carried five battery packs for a shoot, and could consolidate to a single fuel cell pack with a couple of cheaper refill cartridges.

Another key advantage of the cells is virtually non-existent recharge times.  Where traditional lithium ion batteries can take half an hour or longer to charge, methanol fuel cells simply recharge by using methanol refill cartridges, which can take mere seconds.

The fuel cells aren't necessarily a "green technology" as the methanol reacts with oxygen to produce carbon dioxide and water.  However, they may provide some savings in terms of the sulfate and nitrogen fumes creating by burning fossil fuels at power plants to create electricity to charge traditional lithium ion batteries.  Methanol is typically produced via a catalyzed reaction starting with the methane component of natural gas.

Aside from providing practical benefits of lifetime and charge time, fuel cells are also safer.  Methanol will only burn if exposed to a flame, where as lithium ion batteries can easily burst into flames if they just become a bit too hot, as seen with many recalls and reports, including the infamous incident in which an iPod burned a hole in a man's pocket.

George Relan, vice president of corporate development at MTI explains the advantages of methanol stating, "Methanol is the most energetic of the materials with the least amount of trouble for making a product.  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."

The final prototype by MTI also includes water recycling that eliminates the need for a plumbing system to dispose of the water byproducts of the reaction.  This makes the cells substantially smaller.

MTI Micro has not yet announced which cells it will release first.  Its current prototypes include universal chargers, which offer a recharge on the go for cell phones and its SLR packs.  It is also collaborating with Samsung on several products.

The first round of fuel cells will be more expensive than traditional batteries, with the same lifetime says the company, though later models will have better lifetimes.  However, the key advantages will be improved safety and the ability to charge on the go, and to charge more quickly.

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Methanol Cartridges
By InternetGeek on 4/7/2008 11:40:02 PM , Rating: 2
Please correct if I'm wrong, but the promise of fuel cells was to allow us to refil them ourselves... not having to buy a methanol cartridge. When did this change?

RE: Methanol Cartridges
By RamarC on 4/8/08, Rating: 0
RE: Methanol Cartridges
By JediJeb on 4/8/2008 9:51:43 AM , Rating: 3
These cells use Methanol not Methane. Methane is a gas, Methanol is a liquid, a simple alcohol that you can go to Lowe's and buy by the gallon fairly cheap.

RE: Methanol Cartridges
By Akrita on 4/8/2008 5:49:42 PM , Rating: 2
So Methane = farts and Methanol = wet farts.. Got it.!!

RE: Methanol Cartridges
By eye smite on 4/8/2008 12:14:03 PM , Rating: 5
Yeah I was thinking they could make a butt tube adapter so you could recharge it yourself. lol

RE: Methanol Cartridges
By Starcub on 4/8/2008 10:40:18 AM , Rating: 2
IIRC they were also supposed to offer about 10X duration over similarly sized batteries. However, big technological developments like this don't reach the consumer unless the products that are developed from them support a profitable and sustainable business model.

RE: Methanol Cartridges
By ElFenix on 4/8/2008 11:04:47 AM , Rating: 2
it's the razor business

Selling point...
By marsbound2024 on 4/8/2008 2:29:33 PM , Rating: 2
You may be surprised but, "Methanol will only burn if exposed to a flame, where as lithium ion batteries can easily burst into flames..." was the best selling point for me.

RE: Selling point...
By merovingiandsch on 4/8/2008 2:40:26 PM , Rating: 2
'...can easily burst into flames'

Hmm... I don't agree with that statement. Li-ion don't easily burst into flames. In fact, it is probably less than 1 in 10 million that do. Think of all the cell phone and laptop batteries out there - hundreds of millions. How many of us have EVER actually seen even one randomly burst into flames? If they were truly that dangerous, they wouldn't still be on the market. We'd all be powering our laptops with 12 D batteries, ;)

Conversely, EVERY single methanol cartridge would be a flame hazard.

RE: Selling point...
By AnnihilatorX on 4/8/2008 4:25:34 PM , Rating: 2
That doesn't change the fact methonol is safe.
When there is fire, lithum battery packs would probably burn longer than the methonol cells.The amount of methonol you use to power a laptop is about the volume a cigarette ligher.

I've never heard anyone having accident with their cigarette lighters either.

RE: Selling point...
By JonnyDough on 4/8/2008 4:45:39 PM , Rating: 2
You should try Jackass. They do lots of stupid things with fire and gas.

RE: Selling point...
By Hoser McMoose on 4/8/2008 6:03:21 PM , Rating: 2
Think of all the cell phone and laptop batteries out there - hundreds of millions

You're actually off by at least two orders of magnitudes, there are in the order of 10's of billions of Li-Ion batteries out there (mobile phones alone account for over a billion new batteries every year) and only a tiny handful have been recorded to burst into flames.

So yes, Li-Ion batteries really are quite safe, probably at least as safe if not more safe than methanol cartridges.

By merovingiandsch on 4/8/2008 2:12:42 PM , Rating: 2
Ok... riiiiiiiiight..., methanol is flammable -- therefore, I'm guessing that not a single airport in the world will let you bring these particular types of fuel cells, or methanol refill cartridges, onto any airplane. Not gonna happen... And I would wholeheartedly agree with those security precautions.

Anyone disagree? :)

RE: i've got two words for ya - AIRPORT SECURITY
By TimberJon on 4/8/2008 5:11:07 PM , Rating: 2
I don't disagree, but then there could be a solution for that as well... Using Cell phones as an example...

Users would STILL have the option of using the battery that CAME with the phone, as fuel cells probably won't replace current Li-Ion batteries.

Airports may require you to check in your fuel cell methanol cartridge at a station outside the airport or within the terminal, where you use a means of positive ID to log it in.

These stations would be networked on the same lines that currently connect airport data comms and the user can retrieve the same # of cartridges at a similar terminal at their destination.

This currently doesnt work for hair spray or other products that are under pressure because of the non-uniformity of the products. But If a certain FORMAT of fuel cell methanol cartridge were to be laid down, as far as size goes, then a company could capitalize on dispensers that can accept/dispense that standard size/profile cell and perhaps cost nothing to deposit, but cost a Buck or two to withdraw, as well as be able to purchase more, as a convenience at airports, Etc...

Run on? oops.

Just a thought.

What needs to be developed is a panel that cleverly refocuses light from the sun several hundred or thousand times in order to efficiently amplify power coming in and be able to store it. It is the stuff of sci-fi, but then so are so many things we are seeing today..

I agree with the statement that Solar is the key, Unless we can find a mothballed Covenant cruiser..

By Grast on 4/8/2008 5:49:59 PM , Rating: 2
Sorry Timber, instead of looking the sky for a energy solution. :] both for spaceships and light.

I think the solution is fusion energy. Fusion energy will carry the human race to the next 1000 years.


By LivingDedBoy on 4/8/2008 9:46:55 AM , Rating: 2
The fuel cells aren't necessarily a "green technology" as the methanol reacts with oxygen to produce carbon dioxide and water. However, they may provide some savings in terms of the sulfate and nitrogen fumes creating by burning fossil fuels at power plants to create electricity to charge traditional lithium ion batteries. Methanol is typically produced from via a catalyzed reaction starting with the methane component of natural gas.

Umm hate to break it to you but you're still gonna create the fumes... its just wasted electricity now.

Power plants create the same amount of electricity whether or not it is used, any un-used electricity is just wasted and no good to anyone. So the fumes are still there, unless you can conceivably convince the power companies to lower the electricity output based entirely on this fuel cell. Which for some reason I doubt is gonna happen.

RE: waste
By Grast on 4/8/2008 11:25:22 AM , Rating: 2

You are incorrect. Power plants only produce the amount of power needed at the moment by the power grid which it is feeding. Depending on the type of power generation determines how quickly the power plant can reduce or increase electrical generation based on load from the grid. Coal, Oil, Gas Turbine, and Geo-Thermal are good examples of power generation with great capabilities of scaling generation to load. Nuclear, Hydro, Wind, and Solar are the big types of generation which you are referring. Nuclear is most effecient when generating power as peak capability and as such is not very elastic to load flucations in regards to total power generation. Hydro is similar.

In the end, the modern power plants ARE capable of scaling their generation capabilities based on load.

Does it make since that owners of power plant would consume fuel to generate power when no load exists and thus no one to pay for the power. Electricy is a business.


By B3an on 4/8/2008 1:09:41 AM , Rating: 3
I'm sure i've been hearing about Fuel Cells for over a decade now, and i always hear companies saying they will be out soon... yeha yeah..

Green Product?
By JonnyDough on 4/7/2008 10:37:48 PM , Rating: 2
If the only by-products are water and carbon-dioxide then this could be considered a green product. After all, animals produce carbon dioxide. So does rotting vegetation. One might imagine that more carbon dioxide means more food for plants. Methane is a gas that plants nor humans can safely breathe in large quantities, yet life on earth requires both water and carbon dioxide.

I personally believe that the only truly "green" energy is the sun. It's plants that are green and use the suns radiation in the first place. I wish more research would be given to solar research. Just my 2ยข.

fuel cells
By taveo on 4/8/08, Rating: -1
RE: fuel cells
By kontorotsui on 4/8/2008 4:21:56 AM , Rating: 3
Fuel cells are a waste of time, its more convenient just to plug your phone in the wall then to go down the shop and buy a freaking methane cell. Its just a way for them to sell us their proprietary fuel.

It's methanol, not methane. And that is not proprietary.

RE: fuel cells
By exploderator on 4/8/2008 4:48:57 AM , Rating: 2
Fuel cells should be used on large scale to create energy at night for the grid with stored hydrogen made during the day using solar and wind.

At what, a total of 20% or less efficiency? Get real. This is an often repeated 'nice idea' that doesn't work very well when you actually add up the total cost. At least batteries have reasonably high efficiency for storage, like maybe 70% or better. That makes them good for solar and wind: although the battery cost is high, you don't waste much of the expensive input energy. We need bulk storage lithium ion, designed for high lifespan and high safety, and low cost, to replace the lead acids which are the current standard. Instead we have only Li Ion's for disposable consumer electronics.

Fuel cells are a waste of time, its more convenient just to plug your phone in the wall

Unless you have no wall. Fuel cells are best for a completely different reason: they make power. Batteries do not. I want the 500w to 2000w versions, with a lead acid buffer battery and a 5000w inverter, as a silent construction or backup generator. Or a battery + fuel cell UPS, that I can refill from a big jug before the tank runs dry.

"This week I got an iPhone. This weekend I got four chargers so I can keep it charged everywhere I go and a land line so I can actually make phone calls." -- Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg

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