Transformational Technology: Polyfuel's New Fuel Cell Membrane Could Unplug Solar Chargers

toshiba dmfc.jpg
This is a Toshiba prototype of a direct methanol fuel cell (DMFC), which is described as about "as long and wide as a woman's thumb". Based on the progress being made in underlying technologies for DMFC's in general, TreeHuggers will be thumbing them soon, and at the same time waving goodbye forever to lithium batteries and portable chargers. Below is some market context based on one example of technology progress leading to DMFC commercialization.

MOUNTAIN VIEW, CA — May 4, 2005 — The president of U.S.-based PolyFuel, Inc., a Mr. Balcom, warned last week that "U.S. companies are in danger of completely missing the boat in micro-power fuel cells through a sheer lack of market awareness. Micro-power fuel cells are...expected by technologists supplant or replace batteries in increasingly power-hungry portable devices such as laptops and mobile phones".Several firms have working prototypes of fuel-cell-powered phones and computers, with commercial sales expected to begin in Japan in about 2 years (same market entry path as the Prius). Most of the prototype DMFC's extract hydrogen directly from methanol, delivered from a removeable cartridge. The micro-fuel cell membranes are postage stamp to playing-card scale, and operate at comfortably low temperatures. Existing prototypes already run up to 8 hours on asmall volume of fuel.

Mr. Balcom, whose company PolyFuel makes advanced polymer membranes for DMFC's, stated in the company's press release that he frequently sees evidence of the Asian-US disconnect on this transformational technology. "The interest in our membrane is so high in Asia — and increasingly in Europe — that it dominates our activities. We are already working with a number of major Japanese and Korean manufacturers, and we expect prototypes to be available within the next 12 to 24 months. I fear, however, that by the time the trendy applications take root here in the U.S., the design and manufacture of micro-power fuel cells will be firmly entrenched offshore. That ship will have sailed. In North America, only those of us with critical enabling technology will participate." This scenario, said Balcom, "is not unlike that of Lithium ion batteries, whose technologies were predominantly developed in the U.S. but commercialized first in Japan". Yes, TreeHuggers: the underlying technology for micro-fuel cells comes from US patents.

Third generation hand held phones using DMFC power will be capable of high-speed connections that allow users to access the same information as a PC does using broad-band Internet connection, consuming power at much higher rates and for longer periods. DMFC arrival at commercially competitive prices is the rate limiting factor for high-bandwidth technology that will transform serivces offered on many hand-helds, triggering a ripple effect to other electronic devices. And that arrival date is coming fast.

As with all transformational technologies there can be some sad debris. The obvious one is elimination of recharger bricks, their input and output wires, and the internal batteries and battery packs they feed. Imagine the electronic waste coming from this. The less obvious secondary impact could be on the innovative solar backpack-type chargers that have been getting excellent coverage here in TreeHugger.

Don't let methanol scare you, TreeHuggers. Its very bad to drink, to be certain, so it will be sold in containers that discharge liquid MeOH when attached to the fuel cell block. Luckily, methanol is to aquatic bacteria as chocolate is to humans. Spill it down the drain and it biodegrades very quickly. It has to be pure (no denaturants added) for the DMFC so toxicity will be less. And it may be sold as a dilute solution, accomplishing a reduction in fire hazard as well.

Don't assume that lithium batteries are more benign and therefore 'better'. The liquid electrolyte in lithium batteries can pose a serious contact hazard in the presence of moisture, including that from human perspiration. The materials of lithium batteries are energy intensive to make as well. Truth be told, only a small fraction of electronic device batteries are collected for recycle programs because they have low intrinsic material value and are so easily tossed: 'out of sight and out of mind' as it were. Methanol cartridges may end up the same way, but at substantially less risk of hazardous exposure and loss of embodied energy and material.

The rapid and unstopable trend to transformative DMFC's for handheld power production is further evidence in support of my "Island USA Scenario", where green product designs and market plans increasingly originate elswhere. US TreeHuggers have to get more involved in industrial policy making unless they are comfortable in their role as passive consumers.

Look for much more about this subject in coming posts.

by John Laumer