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Packing a Punch

What Motorola and the other companies want most of all, though, are battery-like fuel cells that snap right onto phones and other electronics, to power them directly. “The cell phone is one of the hardest, because people would like to replace their battery with a fuel cell the same size. I’d love to be able to give it to them, but we’re a long way from having something like that,” Hallmark says.

To realize this vision, the companies are pursuing varied strategies. New York City-based Medis Technologies believes it can make a fuel cell that could replace the cell-phone battery, providing 20 hours of cell-phone talk time and hundreds of hours of standby on a single fuel cartridge. Robert K. Lifton, Medis’s chief executive officer, says the company is using a proprietary liquid electrolyte that can operate with higher concentrations of fuel-and provide correspondingly more power-than conventional alternatives. But Medis is not saying exactly how it works. “We have around 17 patents filed, and we’re waiting to get them before we discuss the details,” says Lifton. The business strategy, though, couldn’t be plainer: it’s the razor blade approach. “The payoff for us would be the refills,” at about $1 per refill, explains Lifton. He says Medis will have a prototype by the end of this year.

Another strategy involves carrying methanol as the fuel and then converting it when needed into hydrogen. Because hydrogen packs more power by weight than methanol, the scheme could produce more powerful and efficient fuel cells. Robert Savinell, a chemical engineering professor at Case Western Reserve University, is trying to build just such a small fuel cell; so far his group has built a 25-square-centimeter prototype.

The chemical conversion of methanol to hydrogen-often called “reforming” by engineers-is simple enough technologically, except when you try to do it on a thumbnail-sized device. “People have built reformers on a large scale for kilowatt applications, so the question is not whether it works. The question is whether you can make it small enough to fit in a cell phone or laptop,” says Motorola’s Hallmark.

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