After going nowhere for years, fuel-cell companies announced a few steps forward this week that might bring cynics hope again.
At the Consumer Electronics Show on Tuesday, Angstrom Power said it had successfully completed a six-month test in which its fuel cell was used to power a Motorola MOTOSLVR phone.
The test is the first time a fuel cell has been fully integrated into a standard mobile device, with no battery required, the company said.
Angstrom claims its fuel cells offer twice the run time of the usual lithium-ion batteries and recharge in 10 minutes, and said it is collaborating with battery manufacturers, portable electronic device-makers and mobile-service providers to commercialize the cells.
"As consumer demand for smartphones and multimedia devices grows, so does the need for efficient powering solutions that help enable 'always on' experiences," said Jerry Hallmark, manager of energy-system technologies at Motorola's Mobile Devices business. "Motorola is working with Angstrom to develop fuel-cell technology that will support the increasing energy demands of nextgeneration devices."
Fuel-cell advocates have long hoped that micro fuel cells could help provide longer-lasting power for applications such as cell phones and laptops. But numerous challenges and delays have turned many former advocates into skeptics (see Fuel Cells Follies).
To mention a few of the hurdles, there's the high cost, a lack of the infrastructure needed to distribute the fuel and energy-density difficulties. Then there are the prohibitions on taking many of the fuels used by micro fuel cells aboard plane cabins.
In the announcement Tuesday, Angstrom said Transport Canada already had approved its fuel cells for flight and added its products have been carried on 60 commercial flights. The company also said the International Civil Aviation Organization in November created new regulations that would permit Angstrom's devices in plane cabins starting in January 2009, if they are approved.
Medis Fuel Cells, which is making fuel-cell chargers for phones and other consumer electronics, announced in December it had received a special permit from the U.S. Department of Transportation authorizing passengers to carry up to three of its power packs into airplane cabins.
But as those mass-market difficulties get worked out, some companies have turned to niche markets, such as the military (see Fuel Cells Go Niche).
One such company, MTI MicroFuel Cells, said Tuesday it has begun producing micro fuel-cell systems from its pilot facility in Albany, N.Y.
"This is the first in a number of steps MTI Micro is taking to further our goal of manufacturing readiness in 2008 - an important precursor for high-volume manufacturing," said CEO Peng Lim in a written statement. He added the company expects to deliver mass-produced products in 2009.
The company didn't disclose the size of the pilot line, but said the line is producing "complete systems" for testing for the U.S. Department of Energy and other customers. Last year, the federal department committed $1 million to help MTI bring its fuel cells to market, the company said.
MTI plans to use the pilot line to further develop its manufacturing techniques, and also plans to increase production from the line so it can expand testing of its products.
Also on Tuesday, the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York announced it would be working with Delphi on a $2.75 million project, funded by the U.S. Department of Defense, to research military fuel-cell applications.