Electronic Design

Bright Outlook For Micro Fuel Cells Despite Challenges

The past few years have been very active for the fuel-cell industry, and even more so for micro fuel cells. Fuel cells, electrochemical devices that convert chemical energy directly into electrical energy, are potentially high-efficiency devices. They differ from batteries in that they don't store the energy. Instead, they use energy stored in a fuel carried on a vehicle. The fuel-cell system is restored with chemical energy, not by electrical recharging.

There are three main fuel-cell market segments: stationary, automotive, and portable. American Business Intelligence (ABI) classifies micro fuel cells as part of the portable fuel-cell market segment. Micro-fuel-cell power output is generally less than 5 W.

Although energy density levels of micro fuel cells have been on the rise as their size continues to shrink, certain technological challenges remain, including heat removal, further miniaturization, efficiency, product issues, and methanol crossover.

Fuel-cell stack performance is a function of fuel flow fields and stack manifolds. Water management in the fuel-cell stack is another crucial factor in direct methanol fuel-cell R&D.

Use of dense liquid fuel at atmospheric pressure eliminates the need for bulky storage tanks. Even at 50% efficiency, a mere 1 ml of methanol delivers 2.5 Wh.

Most people seem to be unaware of one important criterion—the marketing of these products. History is made up of wonderful technological advances. Those that became successful were those that ultimately made sense to end users. Although consumers now pay to recharge their batteries, this is a "hidden cost." It will not be hidden when consumers purchase fuel-cell cartridges.

ABI has conducted market research and top-level interviews for years in this sector. The size of the companies ranges from small startup firms, such as Polyfuel, to top-tier chemical material giants, like DuPont. Medis Technologies plans to offer its backup fuel-cell unit in 2004, as does MTI Micro Fuel Cells.

ABI's 2002 market study, "Global Portable Fuel Cells," forecasts that as many as 200 million portable fuel-cell units will be in use around the world by 2008.

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