A fuel cell technology that will offer a quick fix for dead or dying mobile phone batteries looks as if its going to be available for the first time in the world in Japan in 2007, according to that country’s two biggest mobile communications carriers.
DMFCs (Direct Methanol Fuel Cells), which typically work by mixing methanol with air and water to produce electrical power, have for years been promoted as an alternative to lithium ion batteries used in notebook PCs and other portable electronics gear. Developers say they are useful because power can be instantly provided by inserting a fuel cartridge recharger.
A number of Japan's biggest consumer electronics companies have been developing DMFCs, but prototypes shown to date have been too big and bulky, or not capable of producing enough power to be commercialised.
That seems to be changing though.
NTT DoCoMo and KDDI, Japan's number one and two mobile communications carriers, plan to have fuel cell rechargers for mobile phones in shops the year after next.
DoCoMo's case has a prototype charger on display at the Wireless Japan 2005 trade show. It is developing the charger with Fujitsu Laboratories, and the device is near to making the cut for those of the carrier's nearly 50 million mobile subscribers looking for a quick power fix.
The recharger, which is a cradle design, is still a bit bulky at 15x5.6x2.5cm and 190g, but it has got enough juice to do the job. The company says it has enough power to recharge a mobile phone battery three times, which is much nearer to being worthwhile for customers.
The latest version uses an 18ml shot of fuel, the same amount as the old model used; the prior model could only recharge a battery once, Takeno said.
Fuel-cell technology is also looking viable for KDDI's customers. At last October's Ceatec Japan 2004 exhibition, The company showed prototype rechargers from Hitachi and Toshiba, saying improved versions would be in the shops in 2006. That schedule has slipped to January 2007, mainly because it's not until that year when regulations will be changed that will allow passengers to carry methanol on planes.
The Hitachi version is 12.2x7.6x2.2 cm and 175g and offers two recharging options. A 2ml vial of fuel, which snaps into the side of the device, can power a mobile phone for about an hour, while a 15ml vial gives about five hours of power.
The Toshiba version is bigger, at 11.7x11.3x2.5 cm, and the prototype weighs 250 grams, about twice the weight of a typical Japanese-model 3G mobile phone. But size brings power in Toshiba's case, with a 20ml vial of fuel capable of delivering 20 hours of power.
Shrinking DMFCs into sizes that can be fitted into mobile phones and having them good enough to sell will take about three years.
"Replacing lithium ion batteries with same-size fuel cells is very difficult technology," a KDDI spokesperson said.
For DoCoMo, such fuel cells may not be available until the end of the decade, Takeno said.