Power Electronics

Micro Fuel Cells May Have Limited Impact By 2010

Although micro fuel cells have the potential to create portable power packs with high-energy densities and longer runtimes than batteries, their impact over the next several years may be minimal according to a report recently issued by the Darnell Group. In addition to its projections on micro fuel cell commercialization, the fifth edition of Darnell’s “Power Packs for Portable Electronic Devices” traces the migration to Lithium batteries from the other battery chemistries in various applications. The report does not discuss two application areas: cordless phones and power tools.

On the topic of micro fuel cells, the report finds that issues with size and cost will prevent them from having any significant impact on the commercial market until 2007. After their introduction, they are projected to grow from 1.0 million units in 2007 to 1.4 million units in 2010, a CAGR of 9.8%. This forecast could prove too conservative. If direct methanol fuel cell (DMFC) technology evolves and improves faster than anticipated, micro fuel cells could be adopted much more rapidly.

The emergence of this portable power technology bears close monitoring as a potential threat not only to makers of lithium batteries, but also as a real threat to makers of battery chargers and external ac-dc power supplies. In contrast, the trend to changing battery chemistries is expected to have (nominal) implications for makers of battery chargers for portable devices. However, should fuel cells become widely incorporated into portable electronics, the market for battery chargers and external ac-dc power supplies could shrink significantly.

For the purposes of portable electronic devices, the DMFC is the focus of research for most power pack companies, battery manufacturers and manufacturers of electronic devices. The purpose of the development of DMFCs is to comply with the demand for an uninterrupted power source within the portable electronics industry. Methanol fuel has several advantages including light weight, small size, long duration, and easy fuel replenishment. DMFCs are the best candidates for micro fuel cell applications, such as mobile phone handsets and personal computers. The technological and economic challenge is that fuel cells must compete on price, weight, reliability, availability and performance at the same time that more manufacturers are providing lithium batteries at reduced pricing. Also, the current advancements and improvements in power management and use may minimize the need for DMFCs.

For another perspective on the projected impact of micro fuel cells and other types of fuel cells, see “World Fuel Cells,” a 390-page report published in May by The Freedonia Group. Details on this report, including projections of fuel cell growth by application and by chemistry, will appear in the Data Points section of the July 2005 issue of Power Electronics Technology. This article will appear online later this month.

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