Fuel cells are one technology that is full
of promise, but has
yet to deliver commercially in the consumer market. MTI
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
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
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
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
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.