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Don't Bet on Fuel Cells, Manufacturer Says

(Reuters) The producer of fuel cells that can recharge mobile phones and portable music players told industrialists and policymakers last week not to count on the power packs to solve the energy crisis.

"Don't hold your breath on fuel cells. Every 10 years they say commercial deployment is only 10 years away. We're still not seeing any real fuel cells that can run, say, a car," said Robert Lifton, chief executive of Medis Technologies. He was participating in several discussions on energy at the World Economic Forum, an annual huddle of government officials, corporate executives and special interest groups.

Medis itself will not provide the solution either, because its Power Pack fuel cell will only power small portable devices, and cannot be used for bigger items such as computers or cars.

"Our product doesn't scale," Lifton said, adding that the company's first working prototypes would be introduced in May. The company plans to put a $29.99 price tag on its fuel cell for portable consumer electronics, such as handsets, MP3 players and digital cameras. Each cartridge of fuel, which will power a cell phone for some 12 hours, will be priced at $1.50.

Its fuel cell should be among the very first commercial applications of an electrochemical process that was first discovered in the nineteenth century. A fuel cell converts the chemical energy of a fuel and oxidant to electrical energy.

Research Program

In the United States, fuel cells, and the hydrogen that is used in many models as a fuel, is seen as a solution to keep engines running, even when the world runs out of fossil fuels later this century. President Bush supported a $1.3 billion research program to develop such fuel cells.

Many Japanese companies are also working on fuel cells, with Toshiba claiming a prototype that powers a laptop. NEC has boasted about a record level of milliwatts it can generate per square centimeter of reaction surface. Franco-Italian chip maker STMicroelectronics is using chip-making technology to increase energy generation.

Fuel cells are better for the environment than ordinary batteries, which contain heavy metals. Fuel cells only produce electricity, water, and in some cases heat. But Lifton said hydrogen fuel cells still had to overcome essential problems, such as excess heat and water generation.

Governments should focus on energy preservation, and not hope that fuel cell technology will catch up with energy needs. He and others also pointed out that fuel cells could only be a solution to the upcoming energy crisis if the fuel, such as hydrogen, is generated with renewable energy sources.

Hydrogen can either be generated by wind or solar energy, or by using fossil fuels such as gas.

Companies like Shell Renewables, a unit of Royal Dutch, is talking to governments to emphasize that fuel cell technology should be combined with renewable energy.

Solar cells and wind mills generate only a fraction of the world's energy needs at the moment, less than one percent.

Long-term scenario planning by Shell forecasts that in 30 to 40 years renewable energy will generate over one-third of all global energy requirements. Story by Lucas van Grinsven

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