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Toshiba To Begin Mass-Producing Portable Direct Methanol Fuel Cells in 2009

The Nikkei reported that Toshiba Corp. will begin its promised mass-producution of compact direct methanol fuel cells (DMFC) for devices such as cellular phones and notebook computers starting as early as next month.

The Japanese firm, said to be first to turn out portable fuel cells on such a scale, is installing an assembly line at a Yokohama facility. Production levels and capital investment outlays have not been disclosed.

Although production will initially focus on external fuel cells for recharging, the company plans to commercialize mobile handsets and PCs with built-in fuel cells by the end of fiscal 2009.

Initial pricing is expected to range from ¥10,000 to ¥50,000 (US$104 to $519). The Nikkei said that Toshiba aims to lower the price to several thousand yen after ramping up output. Toshiba is targeting segment sales of ¥100 billion (US$1.037 billion) by fiscal 2015.

Separately, IDG News reported that Toshiba will begin selling its first direct methanol fuel cell (DMFC) battery chargers later than expected after it ran into problems securing certain components for them. DMFC battery chargers are portable power sources used to recharge battery-powered devices instead of plugging them into the wall. Toshiba also plans to offer fuel cell products embedded in phones and laptops in place of batteries.

In a presentation earlier this year Atsutoshi Nishida, Toshiba’s president, said [the recharging units] would be released before the end of March but the company now says it won’t be available until later in the year. Despite the delay in the charger Toshiba remains committed to its original schedule for the DMFC packs for cell phones and laptop PCs, it said.

Operation of a DMFC. Source: Toshiba. Click to enlarge.

Direct Methanol Fuel Cells. A DMFC generates electricity in the following manner:

  • A methanol solution is added to the anode side of the cell;

  • The methanol solution separates into protons (H+) and electrons (e-), along with carbon dioxide (CO2);

  • The electrons (e-) are guided out of the fuel cell, forming an electric current. The current returns to the fuel cell cathode (air side);

  • Protons (H+) and electrons (e-) react with the air at the cathode to form humid air, which is exhausted from the system.

Toshiba has developed a system that allows a high concentration of methanol, which had been said to be difficult to overcome. This technology allows methanol to be stored at a much higher concentration, and achieves a much smaller fuel tank than before.

Toshiba has conducted R&D on both active and passive fuel cells since the early 1990s. Toshiba demonstrated the first DMFC for portable PCs in March 2003. In June 2004, Toshiba announced a prototype of the world’s smallest DMFC with energy output of 100 milliwatts (mW), which could be integrated into devices as small as digital audio players and wireless headsets for mobile phones.

This new device adopted a “passive” fuel supply system which fed methanol directly into the cell. In October 2005, Toshiba exhibited a portable battery charger and cell phone jointly developed with KDDI and demonstrated conceptual products, such as a portable music player, at the CEATEC Japan trade show.

In January 2007 at CES, Toshiba exhibited a notebook PC with a smaller, lighter, built-in prototype DMFC unit that realized an average output of 10 Watts or more. By using smaller and thinner parts, Toshiba was able to install the DMFC inside the PC. This prototype is designed to operate for approximately 5 hours from a 70 cc cartridge, but operating time could vary depending on the PC applications.

In 2008, Toshiba displayed chargers or integrated fuel cells in mobile TV viewers and cell phones at CES and CEATEC.

Active vs. passive. Active systems use a pump and fan to feed methanol and oxygen into a cell or cell stack, where the oxygen reacts with the methanol to produce electricity. Active systems are more complex than passive systems and are better suited for applications demanding larger power consumption. Toshiba says that its active fuel cell development for electronics is targeted toward the mobile computing market.

Passive DMFC have a simpler structure that requires no pump and fan. Passive and active fuel cells have different ranges of power output, requiring the devices to be integrated quite differently.

Passive DMFC produces energy around 100 mW to 2W and requires no pump and fan, making the fuel cell size much smaller than that of the active type and suitable for use in smaller portable equipment such as cell phones, headsets and digital audio players.



I came across and article (can not find the link) where some scientists created a nanotech layer by layer coating for the membrane in DMFCs. As I recall, it reduced methanol crossover and produced 50% more energy. That could lead the way to more powerful DMFCs.


ScienceDaily (May 19, 2008)

"Using a relatively new technique known as layer-by-layer assembly, the MIT researchers created an alternative to Nafion."


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