Matsushita, a division of Japan's Panasonic, is showing a direct methanol fuel cell (DMFC) for laptop computers at the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas this week.

The fuel cell, a working model of which is on display powering a laptop PC, is the product of about five years of development work, said Tommy Ichinose, chief engineer with one of the company's technology development groups. The fuel cell creates electricity from a reaction between a methanol and water mixture and air.

Using 200cc of fuel and in conjunction with a standard laptop battery it can power a computer for about 20 hours, Ichinose said.

However, there are still several hurdles to be overcome before it can be commercialised, he added. The first is that current regulations prohibit the carrying of methanol on board aircraft, preventing DMFC-powered products being taken on planes. Clearance for that isn't expected until 2007.

Then there is cost. DMFCs use several expensive components, including platinum; if any company were to commercialise a DMFC now it would probably cost more than the laptop it would power, Ichinose said.

Many electronics companies have already demonstrated prototypes of DMFCs – all face the same issues regarding regulations and cost. Toshiba and NEC were both bullish on the technology early and had promised commercial fuel cells would be ready by 2004, but they are still not on the market and are not expected until at least next year.