Portable Fuel Cells, Not Ready for Primetime

MTI Microfuel Cells put out a triumphant press release last week about fuel cell technology. The cause for celebration was not an actual product, as their “award-winning,” Mobion fuel cell won’t see the market until likely 2009. Instead, they announced that the US Department of Transportation, always fashion forward, had issued a proposed rulemaking to allow passengers to carry and use micro fuel cells on-board.

We started digging around among the players in the micro fuel cell market to see if a consumer could actually purchase a fuel cell and bring it anywhere, let alone on an airplane. At least a dozen companies tout micro/mini/consumer fuel cells as products they offer or will offer, including recent Atlas Ventures-funded Lilliputian, VantagePoint Venture Partners-backed Angstrom Power, Jadoo Power, Samsung, Motorola (MOT), MTI Micro, Manhattan Scientifics, Millennium, and a host of other companies. But are there actual boxes on shelves?

Well, we were only able to get a single portable consumer fuel cell product delivered. The distinction goes to Medis Technologies (MTDL) 24-7 Power Pack, available for $23.99 — you can purchase it from places like Mytreo.com. The technology is different than what other startups are working on and uses sodium borohydride to produce power.

“That product generates 20 watt hours with our basic power management system,” said Robert Liftarkion, CEO of Medis Technologies, when describing the Power Pack. That amount of power equates to about six or seven charges of a cell phone. Then it’s done and must be thrown away or recycled. He also emphasized that the company, “is very proud of the fact that [the Power Pack] is totally green.”

There are several problems with the device, both from a cleantech point of view and simply as a product. Even though the Power Pack is green-branded, it is disposable, generates a waste product (borax), and uses sodium borohydride, which costs more energy to produce than the product provides. Which means that over the lifecycle of the product, the Power Pack isn’t particularly sustainable. Second, to the consumer, whatever the fancy technology, it’s just a big disposable battery. It’s like buying a Brookstone Quick Charge, except that you can’t reload it.

Name the technology and call it a fuel cell, but ultimately, the Power Pack doesn’t seem like such a big an advance over current technologies. This is not the fuel cell that we dream about. The best we can say is that Medis has brought something to market, which is more than most other portable fuel cell companies have managed to do.

And if we’re just talking prototype products, we like Sony’s (SNE) biobattery better anyway.

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