Micro Fuel Cells To Gain In Popularity

 â€œOnce fuel cells enter the mainstream market, they will provide significant improvements in energy storage and also allow portable electronic devices to incorporate new features while simultaneously increasing their operating time,” says Frost & Sullivan Industry Manager Sara Bradford.

The hype surrounding micro fuel cells is understandable. Their ability to deliver more energy per volume weight compared to existing lithium-ion rechargeable battery technologies is a much-awaited benefit. It is expected to resolve the issues related to shorter run times between chargings.

“Current advanced lithium-ion rechargeable batteries offer only three hours of continuous operating time while micro fuel cells could provide 20 or more hours of usage time, even in high-drain portable devices,” emphasizes Bradford.

Micro fuel cells score over traditional batteries in many other facets. In addition to being several times lighter, micro fuel cells are simpler and quicker to recharge.

Military applications are potential early-adopters of micro fuel cells, given the need for uninterrupted operation and the desire to lighten the battery load for soldiers.

However, micro fuel cells are likely to encounter several challenges on their path to commercialization. For instance, the selection of toxic materials such as methanol requires greater attention to transport and packaging safety.

Issues such as methanol crossover, catalyst/membrane interface, membrane operating conditions, and electrode flooding in conventional proton exchange membrane (PEM)-based direct methanol fuel cells (DMFCs) also impede full-blown commercial acceptance.

“Although technology has evolved radically over the past few years, there is still room for improving the current efficiency rates of 20-30 percent closer to 100 percent,” notes Bradford.

Ultimately, standardization of fuel cartridge size, shape, and other form-factor dimensions is essential for the micro fuel cells industry to take off. In response to this need, the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) is looking at uniform specifications for fuel cell cartridges and their chemical composition.

“By establishing a critical mass for fuel-cell-enabled devices, standardization is likely to be the key factor in giving micro fuel cells a larger share of the retailer’s shelf space,” reiterates Bradford.

Large-scale acceptance of micro fuel cells also hinges upon the ability to efficiently mass-produce them at a reasonable price. Reduced usage of platinum and tie-ups with manufacturing facilities can drastically alter the cost of production.

After commercialization, the cost of the fuel cell system is expected to be in line with the prices of existing rechargeable batteries. Industry participants expect prices for each refill cartridge to fall below $1.

In addition to affordability, the added benefits of quiet operation and environment-friendly features are likely to propel micro fuel cells as the next big thing in power source technologies.

You can read their research overview here.