Say Good-Bye to Batteries?

TOKYO -- Toshiba is developing fuel cells for portable PCs that could end reliance on rechargeable batteries. The tiny devices, known as direct methanol fuel cells (DMFC), run on a mixture of methbanol and water, generating an average of 12 watts and a maximum of 20 watts.

In March, the company unveiled a prototype for a DMFC small enough to power laptop PCs. Toshiba exhibited the device -- the first of its type in the world, according to the company -- at CeBIT in Hannover, Germany.

The technology may solve an emerging problem. Today's mobile devices -- loaded with faster CPUs, higher resolution displays, wireless connectivity and other power-hungry features -- tax the limits of current lithium-ion batteries.

Although fuel cells are widely seen as a replacement for batteries, companies developing them face challenges in miniaturization and fuel delivery, Toshiba said. Fuel cells are most efficient using a 3 percent to 6 percent methanol solution mixed with water, but that concentration requires a fuel tank much too large for use with portable devices.

Toshiba researchers overcame the problem by developing a system that uses a higher concentration of methanol, which is diluted by water formed as a byproduct of the power generation process. The technique reduces fuel tank size to less than 1/10 of that required for storing the same volume of methanol in a 3 percent to 6 percent concentration.

Toshiba's DMFC prototype operates approximately 5 hours on a 50 cc cartridge of high-concentration methanol fuel.

Researchers said one of their main concerns in developing the DMFC was assuring that the fuel cell would generate the required power with minimal waste of energy. Toshiba said it investigated such factors as fuel density, circulation and air supply levels to map the best operating conditions for a miniaturized fuel cell.

Also, the PC sends information on its operating status to the fuel cell to balance power demand and supply. Any unused energy is stored in the DMFC and can be drawn on when the PC requires extra power.

Toshiba, which intends to commercialize the device by 2004, has given the DMFC the same electrodes found in lithium-ion batteries, allowing it to connect directly to a PC or other portable device in the same way as a lithium-ion battery.

Big Investment in Miniature Technology

MURRAY HILL, N.J. -- New Jersey has invested $2 million in nanotechnology development, hoping to capture a slice of what could become a $1 trillion industry within a decade.

The New Jersey Nanotechnology Consortium (NJNC) opened its doors in April, backed by corporate, academic and government participation. NJNC website will develop cost-effective nanotechnology devices for a variety of industries, including the pharmaceutical, biomedical, electronic materials, optical/photonics, defense/aerospace, energy and semiconductor markets.

"Nanotechnology is no longer in the realm of science fiction. There are real-world nanotechnology applications and products that can be brought to market today, specifically in the areas of drug discovery, disease detection and electronics," said Dr. Omkaram Nalamasu, CTO of the NJNC.

The National Science Foundation predicts that innovations in nanotechnology will create a $1 trillion industry within 10 to 15 years, as companies learn to apply molecular-level engineering to medical treatments, communications, electronics, defense systems and other areas.

NJNC said it received $2 million in funding from the state of New Jersey for fiscal 2003.

"As a center of excellence, the NJNC is helping to build the critical infrastructure that will be needed to bring nanotechnology-based products to market," said Adam Pechter, president and CEO of Prosperity New Jersey, a state nonprofit organization working to create jobs and grow the economy by linking New Jersey's business, education and government communities.

NJNC already has more than six projects under way from private companies

Shane Peterson  |  Associate Editor