Fuel cell driven MP3 players come closer to reality

The long awaited fuel cell for portable devices is finally on the horizon. The Japanese electronics giant Toshiba says it has developed two fuel cells for use in mobile audio players.

The direct methanol fuel cell (DMFC) units are based on the technology that Toshiba announced in 2004. Instead of requiring recharging from a power source, the fuel cells are recharged simply by refilling with methanol commonly used in cleaning fluids.

Toshiba says that the new fuel cell units can supply power of 100mW and 300mW, which are enough to drive a flash-memory-based digital audio player and an HDD-based digital audio player, respectively.

Developers of fuel cells have in the past run into problems of creating a concentration of methanol to power devices in a fuel cell sufficiently small enough to be practical. The DMFC batteries work by feeding methanol and oxygen into a cell stack where they react to produce energy. Toshiba’s innovation is to use the water generated by the process of power-generation to dilute the methanol, so that the fuel can be 10 times more concentrated and can therefore be used in smaller size units

The 100mW unit power unit measures 23mm x 75mm x 10mm, roughly the same size as a packet of chewing gum. The company claims that the unit can power the flash-based player for approximately 35 hours on a single 3.5ml charge of highly concentrated methanol. The 300mW unit is somewhat wider at 60mm x 75mm x 10mm and is said to provide enough power to keep a hard disk-based music player running for approximately 60 hours on a single 10ml charge.

The prototype audio players are quite hefty beasts. With a fully loaded fuel tank they weigh 78.5g and 270g respectively although Toshiba says that this includes test equipment which will be eliminated in any production model.

Toshiba says that product development will accelerate over the next year or so and expects products based on the fuel cell design to hit the shops sometime in 2007.

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