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New Technology Could Lead to Lighter, Stronger Fuel Cells

June 09, 2005|From Bloomberg News

Scientists said they had discovered a way to make fuel cells generate the heat they need to function, which could lead to new designs of lighter and more powerful batteries for portable electronic devices.

The new technology would eliminate the need for a separate heat source to serve as a catalyst for the chemical process that generates electricity, according to the study published Wednesday in the journal Nature. That would allow for miniaturized cells that would be used in both commercial and military applications, said Paul Ronney, a professor of aerospace and mechanical engineering at USC.

"Probably the most power-hungry portable electronic device that we typically use is a laptop computer, so that would probably be the first application" in the commercial arena, said Ronney, one of six study authors from USC, Caltech and Northwestern University. The researchers estimated five to 10 years until commercial use.

An early customer is likely to be the U.S. military, which could subsidize development costs.

"The foot soldier going into combat may carry something like 20 or 30 pounds of batteries in Iraq" to power night-vision goggles, global-positioning devices and communications gear, Ronney said. A fuel-cell battery would be much lighter than a standard lithium battery, Ronney said.

Dell Inc., the world's largest maker of personal computers, is following fuel-cell research, spokesman Jacob Holder said.

A fuel cell generates power by combining hydrogen and oxygen. Its efficiency and lack of polluting emissions has companies examining a variety of applications, including power for automobiles and office buildings.

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