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“There’s a market disconnect in portable electronics,” says Chris McDougall, program manager of portable electronics power for the Dow Ventures Group, the business unit of Dow Chemical, which recently invested in Millennium Cell. “Electronics are wanting longer and longer run times and wanting more and more power.”

Today’s batteries, he says, just can’t keep up. A typical rechargeable laptop battery will provide two to four hours of AC-free power. Meanwhile, lithium ion and nickel metal hydride batteries for cellphones offer as little as an hour and a half of talk time, depending on the model. As PCs and other mobile devices incorporate more power-draining features – faster processors for better graphics and faster run rates – conventional batteries are likely to hit a wall.

Dow Chemical sees potential in Millennium’s approach. The giant chemical company recently bought a three-percent equity stake in the Millennium Cell, with the option to buy up to 19.9 percent of the company. Dow’s McDougall says that Millennium has differentiated itself from its competitors in the fuel-cell development arena in the way it “utilizes hydrogen fuel.” Millennium is Dow’s only public investment in the fuel-cell market to date.

The prototype of the fuel cell that Millennium Cell showcased at the Intel Developer Forum in San Francisco in March is an external unit that’s just six millimeters thick, but was reportedly able to provide only three hours of charge for a laptop – not much more than some batteries today. But within a couple of years, Millennium’s makers expect their fuel cell to provide eight hours of power and cost about as much as a standard secondary laptop battery (around $150). 

Millennium’s chemical agent, sodium borohydride, is a synthetic compound produced from sodium metal and borax, a mineral often found in dried-up seabeds – with plentiful reserves in the United States, making it a cost-effective fuel, according to John D. Giolli, acting CFO of Millennium Cell.

Along with being “10 times as energy rich as lithium,” currently used to power lithium ion batteries, and slightly more powerful than methanol, Giolli says his Hydrogen on Demand system limits the need for platinum, which is typically used as a catalyst in methanol fuel-cell reactions, and which could drive up the costs of fuel cells when they come to market.

Hydrogen has been the fuel of choice for larger fuel cell systems, like the ones currently being developed to power automobiles some day; but until recently it has not been a popular choice for smaller power sources because of its storage needs.

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