Fuel cells have received a lot of recent attention as possible replacements for internal combustion engines in automobiles. Such power systems are probably at least 10 to 15 years away. But a study by ABI Research expects their much smaller siblings, micro fuel cells (MFCs), to power devices like laptops, PDAs, and phones in test populations next year.
The study also says that the leading companies in MFC development are the Japanese firms whose equipment would be powered by the cells. These include Hitachi, NEC, Toshiba, and a few major companies that are intentionally maintaining a low profile. Atakan Ozbek, ABI's director of energy research, notes that these "nimble" companies are capitalizing on their established position as makers of the very devices that first-generation commercial MFCs will power.
"Once they focus on something, these companies can increase their development effort significantly, which our research is now confirming," Ozbek says. "They know all there is to know about their own products' power demands. They are showing rapid progress in making MFCs smaller and lighter, more powerful and reliable—critical not only for civilian use, but for the large and important military market."
Meanwhile, these companies are laying down the international regulatory framework required to make such devices viable worldwide, says ABI Research. Next year, the major Japanese firms will release limited numbers of MFC-powered portable devices to test populations. High-end consumers then will begin to adopt them, but mass-market acceptance will probably take until 2008 or later.
The Japanese do not have this field all to themselves, however. In the United States, MTI Micro Fuel Cells Inc., Medis Technologies Ltd., and a few other firms are actively developing the technology.
ABI Research's 2004 "Micro Fuel Cells" study evaluates major end-user market applications for North America, Europe, and Japan. It provides growth projections for the next seven years and evaluates international regulatory developments.