INSIGHT: US rule change opens doors for methanol

25 April 2008 15:49  [Source: ICIS news]

An early Toshiba methanol fuel cellBy Joe Kamalick


WASHINGTON (ICIS news)--The US Transportation Department is expected to issue within days a final rule that will permit in-flight use of methanol-powered fuel cells for laptop computers, a major application turning point for both methanol and fuel cells.


The department is to complete its regulatory approval by month end at the latest for a rule proposed in September last year. Basically, the rule will match US policy with the in-flight fuel cell authorisation adopted by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) in 2006.


When US approval goes into effect for the carrying and use of methanol fuel cells in commercial airliner passenger and crew compartments, major manufacturers of portable consumer electronic devices - mobile phones, digital cameras, DVD players as well as laptops - are expected to roll out a variety of products that will be powered by methanol, according to Jack Brouwer, associate director of the National Fuel Cell Research Center.


“It is a big deal,” Brouwer said. “It is secondary only to the technical progress that needed to be made by fuel cell manufacturers to reach this stage of compact size and dependability, but it certainly is a big deal.”


Brouwer said that if the US approval for in-flight methanol fuel cell use had come two years ago when ICAO acted, fuel cell technology would not have been ready to take advantage of the market opening.


“The technological progress in the last two years has been remarkable,” Brouwer said. 


Major consumer electronics firms Toshiba, Hitachi and Sanyo have partnered with fuel cell manufacturers such as MTI MicroFuel Cells Inc to bring to market laptops that will have embedded fuel cells or that can be recharged with small, separate fuel cells that will connect to computers through a USB port. 


In either case, says Brouwer, the traveller will at last be freed from having to search out electric outlets in airport lounges and dingy public toilets for a “power fix”.


Brouwer said he does not have details on the first generation of consumer electronic fuel cells that Toshiba and others are soon to roll out, “but I hear they will enable operation of laptops, cellphones and other portable devices for at least twice as long as those items now run on lithium-ion batteries”.


With publication of the US authorising rule, “This definitely is something that is essential to the success of DMFC,” Brouwer said, referring to direct methanol fuel cells.


The development certainly is welcomed by the Methanol Institute, the US trade group representing methanol producers.


On its face, the introduction of methanol-powered consumer electronics would not seem to represent a major, high-volume market. But that could change quickly.


“We’re talking about a lot of consumer electronic devices,” said Greg Dolan, spokesman for the institute. “Cellphones, laptops, digital cameras, DVD players, and in time you’ll have hundreds of millions of these units in operation all over the world.”


“These consumer units will use only an ounce or two of methanol per charge, but the sheer volume of portable consumer products will create some considerable methanol demand over time,” Dolan said.


“Eventually, we expect that the consumer public will see methanol-powered fuel cells and methanol replacement cartridges on convenience store shelves right next to conventional batteries, everywhere,” Dolan said. “They’ll become ubiquitous.”


It is in that eventual wide-scale consumer familiarity with methanol fuel cells for portable electronics that the door opens for the real exponential growth for methanol - its use as a ready fuel for automobile fuel cells.


Automotive fuel cells are still some years distant, perhaps at least a decade off, according to most estimates. Developers of the much larger and more rugged fuel cells to power automobiles have yet to overcome challenges involving size, years-long dependability and production costs that will make automotive fuel cell prices acceptable to consumers.


When those challenges are resolved, said Dolan, methanol already will have established a strong bond of trust and reliability with consumers - giving methanol a competitive edge over its principal power rival for automotive fuel cells - hydrogen.


Hydrogen is without question a more energy efficient fuel for automotive fuel cells, and it is more environmentally friendly. Hydrogen fuel cells generate electric power and water. Methanol fuel cells produce less power per pound of fuel and emit small amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2).


However, as both Brouwer and Dolan noted, the use of hydrogen as an automotive fuel in our fuel cell future poses major obstacles, not least of which is the transportation, storage and on-vehicle use of compressed or even liquid hydrogen under great pressure. 


The infrastructure challenge for hydrogen is tough enough, but the required high-pressure vehicle tanks could pose an insurmountable and explosive obstacle among consumers who might rightly fear the consequences of a hydrogen fuel tank rupture even in fender-bender accidents.


Methanol, on the other hand, can be distributed through the existing automotive gasoline fuel systems, including pipelines, standard rail tank cars and existing retail gasoline pumps, and it is stored and used at ambient temperatures and pressures.


While the roll-out of methanol-powered consumer electronics over the next few years will in itself present a significant new market for methanol, the potential presented by the automotive market is staggering.


The US now consumes about 21m bbls/day of refined petroleum products, the vast bulk of that in transportation fuels.


For more on methanol visit ICIS chemical intelligence

By: Joe Kamalick
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