Summary:

The portable fuel cell market has been rough for some companies, but investors are still interested — startup UltraCell said this week that it raised $3.8 million for its methanol-based portable fuel cells. It plans to use some of that cash to expand its Ohio manufacturing […]

The portable fuel cell market has been rough for some companies, but investors are still interested — startup UltraCell said this week that it raised $3.8 million for its methanol-based portable fuel cells. It plans to use some of that cash to expand its Ohio manufacturing plant.

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UltraCell’s fuel cells aren’t commercially available yet, according to a company spokeswoman, but it’s aiming to produce hundreds of fuel cells a month by the end of this year. She said the Dalton, Ohio, plant will have the capacity to churn out several thousand fuel cells per month.

The funding was led by UltraCell’s existing investors, including BASF Venture Capital, OnPoint Technologies, Espirito Santo Ventures and the Miami Valley Venture Fund. Based on technology developed at the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, the fuel cell maker has raised a total of $30 million since getting its start in 2002.

The company’s latest fuel cell — which is roughly the size of a hardcover book — generates 55 watts of electricity and can run for five hours on a small fuel cartridge, or up to two weeks when attached to a larger fuel tank. UltraCell is focused on powering ruggedized laptops and radios and other things for the military market, as well as backup generators for emergency response operations.

Competitor SFC Smart Fuel Cell, which is also targeting military applications, uses direct methanol fuel cell, or DMFC, technology, but UltraCell has developed a reformed methanol fuel cell. Both systems convert methanol to electricity, but with the direct methanol approach the methanol is sent directly to the fuel cell. A reformed methanol system first converts, or reforms, the methanol into hydrogen and carbon dioxide, then feeds the hydrogen and CO2 into the fuel cell stack to produce electricity. It sounds more complicated that the direct approach, but UltraCell claims on its web site that it’s smaller and more efficient than direct methanol fuel cells.

There are some potential downsides to breaking with the competition — reformed methanol systems operate at higher temperatures and can require more gear for heat management and insulation than other types of fuel cells. But UltraCell has some supporters, especially in military circles. The company says the U.S. Army and the UK’s Ministry of Defense are both testing UltraCell’s technology to cut the number of batteries that soldiers need to lug around to power things such as nightvision scopes and military robots.

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