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As a future fuel source, hydrogen inspires a lot of hope – and more than a little wariness. But one New Jersey startup has developed a hydrogen-powered fuel cell technology for portable devices that it’s promising can be as safe and even longer-lasting than today’s batteries.

Millennium Cell of Eatontown, N.J. has developed a proprietary process that uses sodium borohydride – a chemical synthesized from borax, a mineral commonly found in laundry detergents – to produce hydrogen. Stored in its liquid form, the sodium borohydride solution is passed through a chamber containing a proprietary catalyst, and hydrogen is released as needed. Millennium Cell doesn’t make the actual fuel cells, but instead partners with different fuel cell manufacturers that license its system.

Debuted at a recent trade show, Millennium’s “hydrogen on demand” process differs from most other fuel cell technologies geared toward portable devices. Typically, they rely on methanol (also known as methyl alcohol, or wood alcohol), which is considered more stable, but less powerful, than compressed hydrogen. Millennium sidesteps the issue of stability by storing its fuel in the form of the stable and non-explosive sodium borohydride solution, and converting it to hydrogen as needed.

Millennium isn’t the only company to move beyond methanol as a fuel choice.  New York City-based rival Medis Technologies utilizes a proprietary sodium borohydride chemistry to run its portable Power Pack. Nevertheless, fuel-cell technology is considered to be moving forward only slowly, as would-be developers, including some of the world’s biggest electronics makers, wrestle with issues of size, energy density, and even federal aviation regulations, which could keep such power sources off planes. In this atmosphere, the use of hydrogen, some feel, might help overcome existing challenges and propel the market forward.

Walter Nasdio, managing director for Ardour Capital Investments, a New York City broker-dealer focused on the energy sector, says Millennium’s technology “stacks up well” against methanol-driven competitors in terms of energy density and utility.

“Methanol got a toehold, and methanol is cheap,” Nasdio says. “But there are issues with handling it and putting it on planes.”  Concerns abound that flammable liquid methanol will cause safety issues if spilled, and therefore might not be allowed on airplanes for a long time to come.

As a replacement for batteries, fuel cells are looked toward as a longer-lasting power source for laptops and cellphones, which proponents say is needed to run today’s more-demanding mobile devices.

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