Nippon Telegraph and Telephone (NTT) has developed a prototype fuel cell that it hopes to commercialize within three years at a size small enough to fit inside mobile phones and other portable consumer electronics devices, the company said Thursday.
The prototype is a micro polymer-electrolyte fuel cell (PEFC) that works by combining hydrogen with oxygen, generating electricity and water, and is more powerful than the direct methanol fuel cells (DMFCs) currently being developed by many companies, said Kazuya Akiyama, a researcher at the energy systems project at NTT's energy and environment systems laboratories.
The power density of the NTT cell, which is a measure of the amount of power it can generate relative to its size, is up to 200 milliwatts per square centimeter. When the fuel cell is commercialized it will be able provide a 3G (third-generation) mobile phone that uses 2.5 watts of power with about 9 hours of talk time, Akiyama said in a presentation at NTT's Yokosuka R&D Center on Thursday.
In contrast, a DMFC developed by NEC last year offered a power density of 70 milliwatts per square centimeter. NTT calculates that to match the size of lithium ion batteries used in mobile phones, a fuel cell must have a power density of about 160 milliwatts per square centimeter or more, he said.
"DMFCs can't do it. There isn't enough power," Akiyama said.
NTT believes that the extra power advantage means hydrogen-fuelled PEFCs will be able to replace lithium ion batteries inside mobile phones and in tests the prototype has been able to power a phone long enough to allow a video or voice call, he said.
NTT's prototype is currently 13 millimeters by 42 millimeters by 80 millimeters, weighs 104 grams and it will take 2 years before the company can shrink this so that it can fit inside a cell phone, Akiyama said.
The hydrogen-fuelled PEFC technology does have at least one disadvantage compared to DMFC technology, he said.
Methanol fuel cells can work off small, nonpressurized cartridges of the liquid while hydrogen-fuelled PEFCs require pressurized hydrogen gas. While the hydrogen is only pressurized to 2 or 3 atmospheres, the industry has yet to create a small, safe and standardized container for this.
NTT has designed a hydrogen storage unit that is slightly bigger than an automobile battery that can store 50 liters of hydrogen. In the home, it could be used as a refueling station for a number of types of fuel cells although is too big for portable use.
Building a supply and container infrastructure, creating international packaging standards and making a legal framework to allow transportation of hydrogen canisters will take about 3 years, a year longer than it will take to resolve similar issues with methanol, Akiyama estimated. Regulations to allow passengers to carry methanol fuel canisters onboard commercial airliners should be completed around 2007.
"The fuel canisters we are using are very heavy and we need to make them smaller and lighter, and safety is a big concern," he said.