NEC tries to grab the fuel cell market by the carbon nanohorns

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TOKYO, March 25, 2003 — Twelve years after NEC Corp.’s Sumio Iijima discovered the carbon nanotube, the company’s fuel cells — powered by a variant called the carbon nanohorn — are getting ready to power portable devices.

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Yoshimi Kubo, senior manager of NEC Fundamental Research Labs’ Nanotube Technology Center, said the fuel cells will start shipping for laptops in 2004 and cell phones in 2005.

In a demonstration at a nanotech conference in Japan late last month, Kubo showed mockups of a fuel cell that ran an NEC laptop and a smaller fuel cell that operated an NEC mobile phone. The 400-gram, 12-volt notebook fuel cell was still about the size of the computer’s display, but had no problem providing the 18 watts necessary to boot the laptop. The mobile phone fuel cell can already provide the 3 watts needed for Japan’s 3G phones, he said.

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NEC’s methanol-fueled polymer electrolyte cells, using 100-nanometer nanohorn clumps dusted with platinum catalyst particles, can theoretically achieve up to 10 times the power density of lithium ion batteries. Next year, NEC will produce methanol-fueled power cells the same weight as lithium ion batteries that will run for about 16 hours, he said.

“We have two choices: We can make them at the same weight as lithium batteries, but they’ll last three times longer, or we can make them a third smaller, so they’ll run about the same time [4-6 hours]. The probable route is the same size, but three times the running life,” he said.

Kubo said NEC will initially supply fuel cells for its own laptops late next year, and cell phones in 2005 and will then probably seek to license the technology to other battery makers. NEC subsidiary Tokin Corp. could possibly produce the cells, but that hasn’t been decided yet.

IDC Japan estimates that NEC sold 1.6 million laptops worldwide last year, coming in seventh with a 5.6 percent share. But 1.3 million of those were sold in Japan, where NEC claims number-one status with a 21.5 percent share where its customer base of first adopters lies. Similarly, NEC is nowhere on the international market with mobile phones, but in the domestic market the company claims a 32 percent share of mobile phones here, representing about 3 million units annually.

Beyond that, Kubo believes fuel cells will capture half the global market for mobile devices in the second half of the decade and NEC will capture “20-30 percent” of that.

These are big claims indeed, say analysts, who question assumptions that fuel cells will eat up huge market share. Up for grabs, says research firm Frost & Sullivan, is a world rechargeable-battery market that in 2001 was about $72.6 million for laptops, $5.4 million for PDAs and $396.2 million for mobile phones.

Barry Huret, president of Huret Associates Inc., a battery consulting company, called the rechargeable battery market “flat” and is skeptical that fuel cells will eat up market share anytime soon. “While many companies are working on miniaturized fuel cells, none of them seem to be there yet. Fifty percent seems very high to me — unless it is limited to specific segments — and then it will become a cost and availability issue. I don’t see it happening near-term,” he said.

NEC is in for some tough competition. Manhattan Scientifics Inc., MTI MicroFuel Cells Inc., Neah Power Systems Inc. and Toshiba Corp. are all touting commercialization of rival technologies in 2004.

Hyunji Lee, public relations officer for Samsung Advanced Institute of Technology, said Samsung has developed a prototype for mobile phones, but won’t say when it will commercialize the product. Casio has a power pack prototype that the company says can drive a notebook for 20 hours and, according to spokesman Akira Watanabe, will hit the market in March 2005.

Such competition means NEC will at best be just another player, said Shinji Thomas Aquinas Shibano, Japan Research Institute Co. Ltd.’s science division general manager. “Carbon nanohorns are a good material and I think NEC’s technology has strong potential for high-power fuel cell batteries instead of low-power ones such as PDAs, where competitors are already making liquid-based fuel cell batteries,” he said.

Frost & Sullivan battery analyst Sara Bradford thinks NEC is “in line” with competitors, but capturing a third of the market is more doubtful. “At this point in the technology development and commercialization process, it is anyone’s guess at what type of design will ultimately succeed. As is, there are many barriers these designers will face once they finally commercialize the technology.”

“First,” she said, “what distribution channels will be best suited to get the product to the consumer? Will the OEMs of the equipment work seamlessly with the fuel cell developer for an integrated energy source?”

Kubo said decisions on these issues have yet to be made. And before any of this happens, NEC needs to reduce the cost of carbon nanohorns from today’s $500 a gram to just one dollar a gram.

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