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Renew Power wants to replace your cell-phone battery with a fuel cell.
September 1, 2004

Cell phones used to be just phones, but now they’re organizers, Web browsers, cameras, and music players, too. As the power-hungry functions pile up, running phones on batteries gets trickier. Cell-phone makers have been hoping micro fuel cells – tiny versions of the devices touted as a source of clean power for cars – would be the answer. But problems with size and power have stalled early methanol-based versions in academic and industry labs. So Renew Power, a spinoff of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is turning to formic acid, the chemical sprayed by black ants on the attack.

This spring, company engineers began making calls on a Nokia phone using their fuel cell. “We’re the first to demonstrate that we can power a cell phone with a fuel cell that actually fits in the phone,” says Richard Masel, Renew cofounder and chief technology officer.

It took a bit of international maneuvering to get to this point. In 2003, former executives of Canadian fuel cell developer Ballard Power Systems helped found Tekion in Vancouver, British Columbia, to license and develop fuel cell technologies. A search for promising new approaches to powering cell phones and other portable electronics led Tekion to the formic-acid fuel cells Masel was developing at the University of Illinois. But the research had been funded by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, “so there was no way it was coming to Vancouver,” says Tekion cofounder and CEO Neil Huff. So Tekion’s founders and Masel formed Renew Power as a U.S. subsidiary of the firm. (Huff serves as CEO of Renew as well.) Tekion and IllinoisVentures, a state venture capital fund, have funneled $1.8 million into Renew, and Huff hopes to begin pilot production of fuel cells for mobile handsets by early 2006.

Of all the markets for micro fuel cells, “handsets are the big prize,” says Atakan Ozbek, vice president for energy research at technology research firm ABI Research in Oyster Bay, NY. “The potential is huge.” Nearly 500 million handsets were sold last year, and this year predicted sales are even higher. But companies hoping to capture that prize face huge challenges. For instance, Ozbek says, when a cell phone “is on standby, it’s drawing almost no power. But once you get a voice call, it increases.” This dynamic change in power requirements is not something fuel cells typically handle well, he says.

Only three years ago, industry watchers expected companies such as Samsung to sell methanol-powered cell phones by 2003. But problems with dynamic power demands, and with operating temperature and size, have stymied their development, and none has made it from lab to store.

Using formic acid as the fuel can solve all these problems, Masel says. For starters, although formic acid yields less electricity per molecule than methanol, it can deliver energy more rapidly than a comparable methanol fuel cell, getting around the dynamic-power issue. Formic-acid fuel cells also operate just fine at room temperature; to achieve the same level of power, methanol fuel cells must work at a scalding 60 °C and up – impractical for a device used near the face. And methanol must be used in a diluted form in fuel cells; handling it requires tiny pumps and pipes that increase the devices’ size. Formic acid doesn’t face that problem, so Renew’s fuel cells require no moving parts – just a replaceable fuel cartridge.

A single cartridge should power a cell phone at least twice as long as the typical lithium-ion battery used today, Huff says. Some experts, however, are skeptical that formic acid will beat methanol into portable electronics. Two of the fuel’s biggest problems are availability and toxicity, says Paul Kohl, director of the Georgia Tech Center for Innovative Fuel Cell and Battery Technologies. “Methanol is a more plentiful fuel than formic acid. You can buy it on the drugstore shelf,” he says. “And I can wash my hands in methanol; I can’t in formic acid,” because the concentrated acid would burn his skin.

Predictably, Renew Power says it is well on its way to solving such problems. The real competition, Huff believes, is powerful, established lithium-ion batteries. But as cell phones grow more complex, the need for more power in a small space should eventually push the industry toward fuel cells. Being the first to have a fuel cell that fits inside a phone could put Renew Power at the head of the pack.

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