The auto industry may be in the spotlight for its fuel-cell developments, but one component maker expects the first major commercial application to be in cell phones and laptop computers.
PolyFuel Inc. even has adjusted its hydrocarbon membrane specifically for use in fuel-cell stacks for portable applications.
``Fuel-cell manufacturers have been developing their processes for years and years using a hot-bonding technique,'' said Jim Balcom, president of Mountain View, Calif.-based PolyFuel. ``They want to be able to use their existing manufacturing processes.''
Fuel-cell systems offer the potential for extensive plastics use, already relying on a thin polymer membrane sandwiched between two bipolar plates where the chemical reaction of oxygen and hydrogen or another fuel takes place, generating electricity. Researchers are looking into the potential of both thermoplastic and thermoset materials for the plates, too, in addition to the membrane. Historically, makers of the cells have used a perfluorinated membrane sheet at the heart of the fuel-cell stack, attaching it to the plates through heat and compression.
PolyFuel makes a hydrocarbon-based membrane as a replacement for the other polymer, which it maintains can perform better. However, its hydrocarbon system originally would not attach to the stacks with the same hot-bonding technique. The firm now can match that system, Balcom said in an April 22 telephone interview.
The company also is expanding its manufacturing capacity to produce sheets as wide as 12 inches, up from its current standard of 8 inches in width.
``This would cover anybody's portable fuel-cell requirement,'' Balcom said.
And those requirements are moving closer to reality.
Asian makers of cell phones and laptops already have prototype fuel-cell-powered phones and computers, with the first anticipated commercial sales in 2006 or 2007.
The items are designed to use small fuel-cell stacks that would create energy by drawing hydrogen from a methanol cartridge. The cells themselves would be built around a membrane about the size of a postage stamp, with a cartridge about the size of a disposable lighter for a phone, while laptop computers might use membranes about the size of a playing card and a cartridge the size of a juice box.
The systems would be capable of powering electronic equipment for longer than today's ion lithium batteries, without the need for recharging - just slide in a new fuel cartridge.
IBM Corp. and Sanyo Electric Co. Ltd. unveiled a prototype IBM ThinkPad computer April 11 that is capable of running eight hours on a fuel cell.
``We do not focus simply on the `wow factor' of fuel cells,'' said Peter Hortensius, vice president of IBM's personal computing division. ``We see it as a powerful enabler that could support a wide variety of business applications.''
The expectation is that fuel-cell electronics will get their start in Japan, where third-generation mobile phones are already in use. The phones are capable of high-speed connections that allow users to access the same information as with a broad-band Internet connection, but using power at a high rate.
``Where there is advanced technology, there's a lot of pain on the market because they can't get the device to run long enough,'' Balcom said.
And while fuel-cell-powered systems are expensive, so are the batteries already used in portable electronics, cutting one barrier to getting the new power units on the street.
PolyFuel is working with top electronics and fuel-cell system developers in Asia, even while keeping an eye on developments in other potential, high-profile markets. Successes there will translate to other industries and other regions, he said.
``The more people work on portable fuel cells, the more they're going to learn about fuel cells,'' Balcom said. ``When it comes to automotive, for instance, if you're already making a million [cells] for portable applications, that's going to set you up very well for an automotive market as well.''