Motorola leads charge for portable fuel cells


In late 2004, Motorola joined in a federally supported program with Carbon Nanotechnologies Inc.(CNI) and Johnson Matthey Fuel Cells Inc. to develop electrodes for micro fuel cells. The goal of the three-year, $7.4 million project is to provide free-standing carbon nanotube electrodes for proton exchange membranes in direct methanol fuel cells. The fuel cells would power Motorola’s mobile phones and other portable devices.

A year later Motorola Ventures invested in Tekion Inc., a nanotech energy company that offers a micro fuel cell-battery hybrid. Tekion’s technology relies on fuel cartridges that contain a purified form of formic acid that it calls Formira.

“We’re hedging our bets,” said Jerry Hallmark, a fellow in Motorola Labs’ energy technologies program. While Motorola is unlikely to manufacture miniaturized fuel cells, it wants to ensure that it is among the first to capitalize on technologies that free mobile phones and other devices from the power grid. “There is no one fuel cell that will be right for everything. It’s too early to pick a winner.”

Tekion’s fuel cell, at left, is about twice the size of a coin. Photo courtesy of Tekion
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The race is on, nonetheless, and it is expected to intensify this year. A safety panel for the International Civil Aviation Organization recommended last fall that aviation regulators allow passengers to carry methanol- and formic acid-powered electronic devices onboard aircraft. The decision, which is expected to get approval as early as April and go into effect in 2007, will remove a barrier for micro fuel cell developers who rely on either potentially explosive methanol or corrosive formic acid to provide the juice for laptops, cell phones and other portable devices.

The year 2007 also marks the end of the federal Advanced Technology Program award that is shared by Motorola, CNI and Johnson Matthey, and coincides with the target launch date for Tekion’s first commercial product.

“We are really supporting Motorola’s future,” said T.J. Wainerdi, director of business development at CNI, a Houston-based single-wall carbon nanotube manufacturer that was launched in 2000. Wainerdi also serves as its liaison in the fuel cell project. “We will some day be in fuel cells in Motorola’s phones.”

CNI’s free-standing carbon nanotube electrodes are expected to be more powerful and simpler to make than existing membrane electrode assemblies. In their first-year review, the team reported getting good performance results using less precious metal catalyst material. They also saw indications that their electrodes were less prone to corrosion, which in the past has prohibitively limited the lifetimes of membranes.

Tekion uses Formira, a form of formic acid, in its fuel cells. The fuel cells rely on a proton exchange membrane, or PEM, to convert energy stored in liquid fuel into electricity. Source: Tekion Inc.
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Tekion offers another approach for powering portable devices. It has developed a fuel cell-battery hybrid that relies on liquid fuel in a miniature cartridge. The fuel cell converts fuel in a chemical reaction into electricity to recharge batteries. Consumers replace cartridges when their batteries run low. Tekion’s approach combines the attributes of both fuel cells and batteries, said Neil Huff, president and chief executive of Tekion.

“Motorola recognizes there is an energy gap,” Huff said. “People have been demanding more functionality and more portability. They could see turning this into a product.”

Tekion, with operations in British Columbia and Illinois, was founded in 2003. It demonstrated its Formira Power Pack technology in 2004 by powering up a Nokia cell phone, and it expects to have products on the market in 2007.

Neither Tekion nor CNI anticipate that they’ll break into the cell phone market as early as 2007, though. They envision their technologies finding a foothold in some of Motorola’s other communications products first. They suggested products such as the satellite phones and two-way radios used by emergency workers in disasters like Hurricane Katrina. Batteries had proven woefully inadequate in such off-grid applications.

They said that two-way radios and satellite phones would provide steppingstones, offering revenues and real-world experiences of integrating their products into devices. “The holy grail is the cell phone,” Huff said. “But that will take a significant effort.”

Finding a small, reliable and cost-effective power source for Motorola’s cell phones remains Hallmark’s long-term goal as well. “The cell phone is the ultimate thing that we’d like to deal with,” Hallmark said. And part of Motorola’s strategy for a diverse fuel cell initiative is to ensure it is not dependent on a sole provider, Hallmark added. “We’d like to have multiple suppliers. It gets costs down.”
- Candace Stuart