Electronic Design

Fuel Cells: A Prospective Reality

Fuel cells are likely to be the answer to the consumer's demand for increased power that is an environmentally friendly alternative. This technology can directly convert the chemical energy in a fuel, such as methanol or hydrogen, into usable electricity. The system creates energy, but does not store it such like a conventional battery. This process produces little or no harmful emissions and the byproducts are water vapor and only trace carbon dioxide.

What will happen in the next five to ten years?
Devices: Fuel cells for mobile devices such as laptops have focused around the direct-methanol design. Direct-methanol fuel cells (DMFCs) use a polymer membrane as an electrolyte, and a catalyst draws hydrogen from liquid methanol, eliminating the need for a fuel reformer.

Portable: Established, consumer-product-driven conglomerates include Samsung, Hitachi, Toshiba, NEC, Casio; and R&D-driven entities comprise Neah Power Systems, MTI MicroFuel Cells, and others. The goal of the consumer vendors is to go to market with products that utilize fuel cells by late 2004 to 2005. These initial fuel-cell designs will not replacing existing battery chemistries but will be used in conjunction with them, such as a fuel-cell battery charger. The replacement of existing battery chemistries will come later in the decade.

Stationary: Small stationary fuel cells are on the market today. Ballard AirGen and IdaTech “FCS” are two notable designs on the market. Nuvera, Avista, MER Corp, Hydrogenics, Aperion, and other companies are also developing small portable stationary fuel cells. An elaborate hydrogen infrastructure is not expected to be in place even by 2010, and re-fueling would still be a major issue for this category of fuel cells.

Automotive: In the automotive application space, all major car manufacturers have prototype designs that employ fuel cells already on the road. This trend will only increase over the next five to ten years. With governmental agencies actively funding research projects, semi-commercial fuel-cell-powered automobiles are expected to hit the market around 2005 to 2007. However, it is unlikely to arrive commercially during this decade, as cost and re-fueling challenges still restrain the technology.

The Verdict: This Pipe Dream Will Become a Reality
Fuel-cell technology is definitely a reality. A number of questions remain on key issues including cost, re-fueling, miniaturization, efficiencies, and other matters that are currently affecting the development. Within the next five years, commercialized designs such as a fuel-cell battery chargers for laptop computers should come to pass. In a decade or so, we should see other portable power-generating fuel-cell units and possibly the first hybrid fuel-cell automobiles. Time will be the judge.

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