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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