Fuel cell maker MTI Micro has a habit of making a lot of little announcements on its long march toward commercialization, which won’t happen til the end of 2009. The Albany, N.Y.-based company — a subsidiary of MTI — says this morning it has reached another milestone: developing a prototype of a fuel cell charger that has a removable cartridge. That means the fuel cell can charge consumer electronics like cell phones and MP3 players for about 25 hours of use and when the fuel is all used up, the cartridge is removed and replaced with a new one; basically, this means the consumer doesn’t have to refill the cartridge manually.
On one hand, this is an achievement, making fuel cells easy to use for for consumers. Fuel cells have made very little headway into the consumer electronics market and making the product as easy to use as possible is necessary to spur adoption. As an MTI spokesperson explains to us, “MTI Micro strongly believes that asking consumers to fill up with methanol via a squirt bottle is simply too cumbersome and time consuming. By developing the cartridge, the user experience will be both more appealing from a convenience standpoint, and practical.”
MTI is probably spot-on in its assessment that the cartridge will likely be the more popular way to operate the fuel cell in the mobile world. These fuel cell chargers are targeting people who are on-the-go and would carry an extra cartridge in their bag as a backup — I couldn’t envision carrying my own supply of methanol that I would periodically inject into the device.
But on the other hand, removable fuel cell cartridges add more waste into the system than refilling cartridges. Disposing of a cartridge after 25 hours of use — which is charging a cell phone battery over 10 times, listening to 10,000 songs on an MP3 player or taking 6,000 pictures — can equal a significant amount of waste over a year. The cartridges are meant to be recycled, however, so there is an end-of-life plan.
The cartridge is also part of MTI Micro’s roadmap for moving into the largely empty fuel-cells-for-gadgets market — and, more importantly, a potentially lucrative part. Jim Prueitt, MTI Micro’s VP of engineering and operations, said the cartridge “demonstrates that MTI Micro has developed their own standardized cartridge design.” If a company can supply the fuel source and the charger it creates a bigger business. Think HP’s ink jet cartridges for printers sold alongside the printer — as this Popular Science article on the Inkjet Refill Racket, notes on the business model: “The printers are dirt cheap, but you have to keep buying ink for eternity. And wouldn’t you know, it turns out that printer ink, especially for photos, is probably the most expensive substance per volume you’ll ever buy.”
We’re not sure how much MTI’s cartridges will cost, but MTI’s CEO Peng Lim previously told us that a refill would cost “less than a cup of coffee.” So, not too bad. The company will also do a lot to actually bring fuel cells to the consumer market — it’s one of the leaders in the space and it has three OEM partners — Samsung Electronics, NeoSolar, and an unnamed global digital camera manufacturer — that are evaluating how to use the fuel cells in their products.