Are Fuel Cells Ready To Power Portable Electronics?

Sept. 16, 2003
There’s a growing burden on the life of batteries in portable electronic devices, where the demand for more functions and features in small footprints
There’s a growing burden on the life of batteries in portable electronic devices, where the demand for more functions and features in small footprints continues to rise at an alarming pace. This, in turn, has created a significant need for a good uninterrupted power-generating source. Finally, years of R&D by visionaries around the world are coming to the rescue. Recent reports from market research firms, such as Frost & Sullivan and Darnell Group, clearly indicate that fuel cells have progressed sufficiently to handle a variety of markets, including portable electronics, automotive, industrial and medical.

In a study conducted by Frost & Sullivan analysts, applications such as cell phones, notebooks, laptops, camcorders and cordless tools hold great market potential for direct-methanol fuel cells. According to Frost & Sullivan, these applications are likely to occur between 2005 and 2008. A recent study on fuel cells explores other markets such as industrial, automotive, and medical. Moreover, Frost & Sullivan analyst Aninditta Savitry has completed an extensive study on this subject for a report titled “Fuel Cells: The Power Source for Future Generations of Industrial; Healthcare; and Transportation Applications.”

Likewise, based on data gathered by Darnell Group analysts, fuel cells are expected to penetrate portable applications by 2005, with the exception of camcorders, which fuel cells are projected to enter by 2006. Of the numerous fuel cell technologies being seriously considered for portable applications, Darnell Group believes the direct methanol fuel cell holds the most promise. They operate in a relatively low temperature range, making them attractive for tiny to mid-sized applications. However, Darnell says issues related to cost and transport regulation must be addressed before they enter the mainstream.

According to a market forecast report prepared by Darnell Group for the Department of Energy and U.S. Fuel Cell Council, fuel cells offer the greatest potential of powering devices that are currently using premium rechargeable batteries such as Li-ion and Li-polymer types. Darnell’s study predicts the largest potential market for fuel cells is mobile phones, followed by notebook computers. Other important segments include camcorders, digital cameras and PDAs, which are small but fast growing. Of these applications, PDAs present the best opportunity, while camcorders and digital cameras will remain smaller, niche markets. Only high-end digital cameras and professional-level camcorders are expected to be good candidates for fuel cells, the report indicates.

The study shows that products such as DVD players, handheld games and other consumer units that use non-rechargeable and alkaline batteries aren’t attractive for fuel cell applications. Likewise, price-sensitive consumer battery chargers are also unappealing to fuel cells. However, portable power units/battery chargers for industrial/military applications are expected to move in the direction of fuel cells, the Darnell report suggests.

In terms of numbers, the Darnell report estimates that worldwide fuel cells could account for 8.6 million unit sales for mobile phones in 2004, increasing to 463.8 million in 2009, a CAGR of 122.1%—if the right price points are achieved. Using this forecast model, fuel cells would potentially penetrate just under 89% of the total available worldwide unit market by 2009.

An important consideration with fuel cells is that more than one factor drives adoption. High-value applications, new features of devices, less price-sensitive markets, and the ability to bring costs down will all play a part in whether this technology is successful, Darnell says. At the same time, Darnell cautions that competing technologies, overcoming technical hurdles in the development of fuel cells, regulatory requirements for transport, small markets that would not produce economies of scale, and the business model of Japanese companies—who already have a foothold in the market—could pose threats sufficient enough to delay entries into this market.

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