Portable fuel cells may not be ready for civilian cellphones or laptops quite yet, but the military is hot to get the technology ready for the battlefield.

Protonex Technology is the latest portable fuel cell developer to land a military contract to advance the potential for its technology. The Southborough, Mass.-based company said Thursday that the U.S. Army was giving it $1.48 million to find ways to run its solid oxide fuel cells on other fuels, including biodiesel and butanol.

The company has developed its fuel cell technology with millions in military grants, and it isn't the only one seeking the Department of Defense's largesse.

Fuel cells, which convert hydrogen from a variety of sources into electricity through a chemical reaction with oxygen, can be a useful alternative to batteries that can't easily be recharged by soldiers in the field.

But they also present technical challenges that have so far kept them from adoption for powering consumer electronics (see Fuel Cells Step Forward), although they have found a niche market in powering forklifts (see Plug Power Puts Fuel Cells in Forklifts and this Green Light post).

Medis Technologies last month came out with a fuel cell that can power cellphones, flashlights and other small electronics, but the current model can't be refilled and will cost $35 to $50 for 40 hours of power.

MTI MicroFuel Cells is seeking to develop miniature fuel cells to power GPS devices and digital cameras (see Fueling More Flash) and has a pilot plant in Albany, N.Y.

And Toshiba has been working on fuel cells for portable electronics for years. In January it announced said in January it plans to release a methanol-based fuel cell battery charger by the end of March, and follow up with fuel cells for cellphones and computers in the next 12 months or so.

But while consumer applications of fuel cells may struggle with costs and difficulty with the fuels needed to power them, the military doesn't need to make its fuel cells as cheap or as convenient to refuel, as long as they're portable.

UltraCell said in June that the U.S. Army and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, were supporting its development of a methanol-based fuel cell to power laptops. The Livermore, Calif.-based company also got a Department of Energy grant in December to develop a quality-control system for fuel cell manufacturing.

And Jadoo Power said in January that the U.S. Air Force had given it a grant to study using pellets of ammonium borane about the size of a pinky to power fuel cells for unmanned aerial vehicles, ground sensors and portable applications. The Folsom, Calif.-based company already has a grant from the U.S. Army to work on the technology.

German company Smart Fuel Cell, which tested its portable fuel cells designed with DuPont in tests with the Army last year, said last month that it was launching commercial sales of its Jenny portable fuel cell (see Fuel Cells Deployed on Battlefields).