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Saturday, August 28, 2004

Giving the Battery, That Stalwart, a Fuel-Cell Challenge via NYTimes

Every time engineers who develop rechargeable batteries come up with a new trick to extend the time between charges, the electronics industry introduces new features in portable gadgets that have the opposite effect."The battery has become the laggard in new technology," said William P. Acker, president and chief executive of MTI Micro Fuel Cells, a miniature-fuel-cell developer based in Albany.Unlike the fuel cells that are being touted as a way to power cars and trucks, the smaller versions do not use hydrogen gas as a fuel. Hydrogen is explosive, and using it with small devices would pose storage and safety problems. If nothing else, security concerns would probably make it impossible for airline passengers to carry, say, an MP3 player with even a small cylinder of hydrogen attached.Instead, the fuel of choice in small fuel cells is methanol, an alcohol that is most commonly produced from natural gas, although it can be produced using coal or even the foul-smelling gas from landfills. Inside the cell, the methanol combines with water to make carbon dioxide, hydrogen ions and electrons.The edge hydrogen holds over the various chemicals used in rechargeable batteries is its ability to store much more potential electricity in any amount of space. Dr. Acker said that methanol has 20 to 30 times the "energy density" of materials currently used to make, say, cellphone batteries, although he acknowledged that the figure represented theoretical limits.The battery as we see today may cease to exist in the same form in the near future.
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