Toshiba's first fuel cell coming in a few months

Toshiba is close to launching its first commercial direct-methanol fuel-cell device, which promises a faster way to recharge portable electronics products.

The company said Monday that the DMFC will be launched during its current financial year, which ends March 31, 2009. Toshiba won't say yet what the product will be, although it offered a possible clue last week at the Ceatec show in Japan, where it showed a cell phone based on a fuel cell.

DMFCs produce electricity from a reaction between methanol, water and air. The only byproducts are a small amount of water vapor and carbon dioxide, so DMFCs are often seen as a greener source of energy than traditional batteries. Another advantage is that they can be replenished with a new cartridge of methanol in seconds.

Toshiba and its competitors, including Sharp, NEC, Hitachi, Sanyo, Fujitsu and Canon, have all shown or disclosed prototype fuel-cell work in the past few years, but nothing has yet come to market.

In the product shown at Ceatec, the fuel cell had been integrated into the clamshell phone under the keypad and made the handset a little thicker, though not considerably. While the phone was a prototype, the build quality was close to what you might expect from a commercial product.

In addition to cell phones, companies have also talked about DMFC rechargers that can top up the battery of a portable device when it's not in range of a power socket. Such devices are seen as stepping stones on the way to products directly powered by fuel cells.

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