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Toshiba taps MEMS to shrink fuel cells

Posted: 21 Sep 2004 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:mems? toshiba? portable systems? pda? cellphones?

Toshiba Corp. has developed a MEMS-based pump for fuel cells, a move seen as an important step forward in miniaturizing the devices for portable systems.

Nevertheless, attendees at the Portable Power Conference here (Sept. 14-15) remained skeptical that any new technology will give portable systems a much-needed boost in battery life in the foreseeable future.

Toshiba's prototype device uses microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) technology to pump fuel and air into a passive fuel cell stack for a portable phone recharger, said Fumio Ueno, a technology executive with the company speaking at a panel here. The company eventually expects to use MEMS pumps in hybrid passive/active fuel cells for cellphones and PDAs, he added.

No other companies have applied MEMS to fuel cells, although some universities have done work in this area, said Ueno. Nevertheless, he expressed confidence the MEMS powered devices could be available soon.

The tiny pumps could solve the problem of how to shrink the mechanical parts of fuel cells however that is just one of the many problems the technology faces. In a straw poll, a majority of about 150 industry insiders at the conference said they do not expect fuel cells to ship in volumes of more than a few thousand a month for six to ten years.

Fuel cells do not appear to be on a track to offer significantly more energy density than today's mainstream lithium ion cells, according to several sources. Current regulations ban transportation of pressurized canisters of their methanol fuel. In addition, they face the same twin hurdles as all new power sources-proving they are safe and can be made in high volumes.

Even in 2008, fuel cells will only be a niche market option for some notebooks, said Don J. Nguyen, a battery expert for Intel Corp. "They are getting closer but they are still not at the half a kilogram and 300-cc volume we target for notebooks," he said.

For its part, Intel is working with two battery startups working with new chemistries it hopes could deliver by 2006 batteries that run a notebook computer for a full eight-hour day. Those companies are Zinc Matrix Power Inc. and Pionics Co. Ltd.

"To get to the eight hour notebook we need to get to 100 Watt-hour batteries start looking at new chemistries like advanced lithium polymer and zinc," said Nguyen. Notebook makers hold out little hopes such efforts will be successful. "I don't see any new chemistries on the horizon," said John Wozniak, a battery expert in Hewlett-Packard's notebook group.

However, an HP Lab group spun out of its inkjet efforts is researching fuel cells using a unique thin-film polymer, he added.

"I am hoping we get to a rechargeable battery that has significantly higher density that you can make in high volume and has the safety levels we have today," said Tom Hildner, a technology strategist focused on battery issues inside IBM Corp.'s PC division. "When that will be is anybody's guess, Nobody is showing anything like that today," he added.

- Rick Merritt

EE Times

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