Entrepreneur creates new miniature fuel cell

Unit shows promise for cellular phones and other portable electronics.

provided by Los Alamos National Laboratory

new power source for cellular telephones and other portable electronics should provide power up to 50 times longer than conventional nickel-cadmium batteries.

Crafted in his basement workshop by Los Alamos National Laboratory affiliate Bob Hockaday, the miniature methanol fuel cells should have a major impact on the $1 billion-a-year U.S. portable phone battery market within two to three years.

"Electrical power from hydrocarbon fuels has been a dream of electrochemists for a long time," Hockaday said.

Hockaday's micro fuel cells, of similar size and price and half the weight of nickel-cadmium batteries, have about 50 times more energy. "That's just the nature of hydrocarbon fuels: you can carry much more energy per pound," Hockaday said. "That specific energy is why biological systems run on them."

Hockaday began his fuel cell work 10 years ago, and in 1994 took entrepreneurial leave from Los Alamos. Through a cooperative research and development agreement, the Laboratory has provided technical help as Hockaday improved the performance of his fuel cell. And the Laboratory's Civilian and Industrial Technologies Program Office introduced Hockaday to investor Marvin Maslow, who set up Manhattan Scientifics to back Hockaday and another Los Alamos CRADA partner, Tamarack Storage Devices Inc. of Santa Fe.

Hockaday's company, Energy Related Devices Inc., announced Jan. 21 in a ceremony at Los Alamos a Department of Energy laboratory managed by the University of California that it will receive a $1 million investment from Manhattan Scientifics Inc., a publicly traded company located in Los Alamos and New York.

Maslow's investment in Energy Related Devices will move the technology from Hockaday's basement, where he has proven the working principle of the device, to the manufacturing-prototype stage. Manhattan Scientifics contracted with Energy Related Devices to develop the final prototype. Maslow said he plans to work with Hockaday to create alliances with Fortune 100 companies that can bring the product to market quickly.

"The weak link in the chain of electronic devices is the battery," Maslow said. "If the micro-fuel cell invention does what we think it will, it will have a profound impact on people's lives around the globe. The marketplace for this invention is vast."


More power to you


Hockaday estimated the micro fuel cells could be on the market by late 1999. He has made the miniature methanol fuel cells run at room temperature like batteries and is producing milliwatts of power. He now must turn the device into a product by increasing the power to the levels needed to run a cellular phone: about three-tenths of a watt in standby mode and about four watts for talking.

"We're at the point that it really does work; now it's just a matter of brute force engineering to crank it up," Hockaday said.

The micro fuel cells should last at least 20 years, where conventional batteries wear out in about two years. Greater energy means users can leave their phones on for two weeks, not one day, and can talk for as much as 100 hours, compared to 2 hours with conventional batteries.

To fuel the micro fuel cell, users simply pour in 1.5 ounces of inexpensive methanol, instead of waiting a day while a battery recharges. The fuel cell will also have significantly less impact on the environment when it comes time for disposal than do conventional batteries.

Hockaday's effort involved re-engineering large conventional fuel cells into a mass-produced, miniaturized power source. Potential future applications include portable computers, which require about 30 watts of power, and other low-draw electronic devices.

Fuel cells work by converting the chemical energy in a fuel such as methanol to electrical energy by creating a circuit through which electrons in the fuel travel from a negative to a positive, or oxidizing, electrode.

Hockaday's fuel cells are non-bipolar, that is the positive electrodes are all on one side and the negatives on the opposite side. The electrodes provide elementary electrical connections at low power. To get more power, Hockaday stacks up the fuel cells. He holds three patents and has pending one additional domestic patent and two international patents.

Manufacture will be relatively simple, he said. The fuel cell elements can be printed by the millions on a single sheet of plastic.


Home brew


Hockaday's basement workshop, just downstairs from the kitchen of his suburban Los Alamos home, is crammed with homemade and scavenged equipment. He estimates he has sunk about $25,000 a year into his invention.

Hockaday said leaving Los Alamos National Laboratory, where he worked for 10 years in diagnostic physics, was difficult but essential to his success.

"To go out and risk your family's income and your whole identity as a working scientist is really tough, but I want to show others that it can be done," he said.

Los Alamos National Laboratory has an ongoing research program into fuel cells, but is exploring different technologies than Hockaday. Los Alamos researchers have provided significant advancements in the area of polymer-electrolyte membrane fuel cell technology and research into new fuel cells catalysts. Los Alamos also played a role in a recent breakthrough that would allow fuel cells to run on gasoline, and thus take advantage of the existing gas distribution system for automotive applications.

  Los Alamos National Laboratory, Jim Danneskiold (505) 667-1640; slingerlanl.gov.