Firm puts fuel cell in GPS device

MTI MicroFuel Cells will unveil a prototype GPS device powered by an embedded fuel cell today at the
Peng Lim, president and chief executive officer of MTI Micro Fuel Cells in Albany, holds a GPS prototype Thursday that has had the battery replaced with a fuel cell.
PHOTOGRAPHER:
Peng Lim, president and chief executive officer of MTI Micro Fuel Cells in Albany, holds a GPS prototype Thursday that has had the battery replaced with a fuel cell.

Categories: Business

MTI MicroFuel Cells will unveil a prototype GPS device powered by an embedded fuel cell today at the Small Fuel Cells Conference in Atlanta, a breakthrough the company has long been trying to achieve.

The company has been trying to develop a complete platform of systems to power hand-held consumer electronics using its methanol micro fuel cell technology, known as the Mobion chip.

Putting the micro fuel cell inside a portable GPS device suggests the Mobion system could one day be used as replacement technology for internal rechargeable batteries used in devices like cellphones. In the GPS prototype, the Mobion fuel cell lasts three times longer than four disposable AA batteries used to power similar GPS devices now, enabling approximately 60 hours of continuous use.

“If you’re hiking and you’re outside, GPS is important to you. You don’t want to get lost. This has battery life you can’t find anywhere else,” Mechanical Technology Inc. Chief Executive Officer Peng Lim said. Lim is also CEO of MTI MicroFuel Cells, a subsidiary.

The other two legs of MTI MicroFuel Cells’ commercialization strategy are universal external power chargers, which can recharge cellphones and other handheld devices without the need to plug them into a power grid, and snap-on/attached power sources like those used for high-powered digital cameras. MTI MicroFuel Cells’ demonstrated its snap-on prototype at a Japanese trade show in February.

All of the potential applications for MTI’s micro fuel cells use the Mobion chip, an innovation spearheaded by Lim since he took over as CEO in 2006. The Mobion chip, which is a little smaller than a business card, isn’t really a chip. It’s the generator that produces electricity from methanol fuel. The Mobion system, scaled to different sizes, is used throughout MTI’s platform of prototype products.

Each of the prototypes currently showcased by MTI MicroFuel Cells uses a refillable methanol system, where the fuel is poured into the device, but company officials said once a commercial product is produced it will use methanol cartridges that a consumer will purchase like batteries.

Company officials are eyeing 2009 for commercialization of at least one of the three types of methanol micro fuel cell products. They are not yet ready to announce which application will be manufactured for consumer use.

“[This GPS prototype] has just shown that our technology can propagate into all different applications of [hand-held device power sources],” Lim said.

Methanol, as of Wednesday, can also be taken on airplanes in the United States, another key breakthrough for commercialization of the technology. The U.S. Dept. of Transportation on Wednesday issued its final ruling permitting methanol fuel cell cartridges to be brought on airplanes and in carry-on baggage.

“DOT’s decision certainly validates our choice of methanol as a fuel source,” MTI Microfuel Cells Vice President of Corporate Development George Relan said.

Methanol is an alcohol fuel sometimes referred to as wood alcohol because it was once produced as a by-product of the distillation of wood. MTI MicroFuel Cells’ methanol is a cheap by-product of natural gas use. Company officials said the fuel sometimes costs less than a $1 per gallon.

“And a gallon of methanol would power your cellphone for a long, long time,” Relan said.

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