Hitachi, Toshiba Ready Fuel-Cell Attack

Hitachi, Toshiba Ready Fuel-Cell Attack

At December’s Eco-Products 2003 show, Hitachi announced its entry into the race to obsolete the battery. The company is now one of two major mobile technology vendors racing to ensure the battery is obsolete as a power source for portable computers long before this decade is over.

Battery technology has languished in the face of laptop and handheld computers’ rapid advancement. Power-conservation efforts have resulted in laptop-battery life that ranges from about two hours (for models equipped with desktop processors) to 7 hours (for IBM’s Centrino-based T-series laptops), but we are still a long way away from being truly wireless. PDAs showed promise—Palm’s initial handheld computers lasted up to a week—but as performance demands rise and power-hungry wireless technologies expand, handheld computers are quickly dropping to the top of the laptop range for battery life.

The industry needs a change, and it needs it quickly—particularly for emerging platforms like modular PCs; tablet computers; and hand held media players (you’ll hear more about these at January’s CES in Las Vegas), all of which will need battery life measured in days, rather then hours, to meet their full market potential.

Fuel cells are currently considered to be the fix for this problem. Basically little solid-state generators that run on diluted alcohol, these ultra-small machines address the battery issue by replacing or supplementing these batteries. Representing a lower fire hazard then the lithium-ion batteries currently in laptops, this technology has had three major problems to overcome.

The first is size. Until recently, a fuel-cell generator has been too big to use in a portable device. However, advancements by Hitachi and Toshiba have dropped the size down to a point where the cell can be about the size of an AA battery for handheld devices and about the size of an extended battery for laptops.

The second hurdle has been the dilution of the fuel itself. The FAA in particular has been nervous about the problems associated with a flammable liquid in planes, and coming up with a fuel mixture that satisfies their concerns while providing an adequately powerful source of energy has until lately been elusive. Right now, the industry is working with mix of about 20 percent alcohol to water but wants 30 percent or better to meet performance goals.

Finally, the devices have simply been too expensive. While they will never be as inexpensive as batteries, they need to drop to a level that people will be willing to pay.

One nice thing about these devices is that they are relatively environmentally friendly. Their “exhaust” is water and carbon dioxide, and some designs (like Toshiba’s) are endothermic. (In other words, the harder the device works, the colder it gets). If you take into account the heat problems with which laptop and modular computer makers are struggling today, this technology could have the unique ability to address one problem (overheating) while it also addresses the need for portable power.

When these products hit in 2005, expect them to come in two forms: internal, which replace or supplement the battery technologies used today; and external, which can serve as a power source for devices that were not designed for fuel cells at all. Hitachi is leading with the smaller devices and Toshiba with the larger; both plan to have product market-ready in 2005. (There are other firms I haven’t mentioned that are also clearly in this race.)

I’m looking forward to asking the flight attendant for two shots of vodka: one for me and one for my laptop computer. (A laptop that’s able to drink me under the table is an interesting concept we will have to explore during New Year’s celebrations.)

This time of year it is traditional that we look to the future. If fuel cells hit their design and release goals, that future is not only bright—it is well-powered.

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Rob Enderle is the principal analyst for the Enderle Group, a company specializing in emerging personal technology.

Copyright © 2004 Ziff Davis Media Inc. All Rights Reserved. Originally appearing in eWEEK.