Toshiba's direct methanol fuel cell (DMFC) charger charging an iPod
TOKYO, 27 OCTOBER 2009 - I've been following the development of Toshiba's direct methanol fuel cell (DMFC) since I first saw a prototype in 2003. Since then new prototypes have been rolled out once or twice a year but it always seemed to be under perpetual development ... until last year when Toshiba began promising an imminent launch.
So it was with some excitement that I took Toshiba's first commercial fuel cell charger, called the Dynario, in my hands last week. Toshiba will begin shipping them on Thursday but I've been trying one out over the last few days and I'm quite impressed. Charging and refuelling is easier than I thought, a few squirts of methanol seem to go a long way and charging time isn't much different from using a wall socket.
Fuel cells are interesting because they create electricity from a reaction between methanol, water and air. They can be replenished in a few seconds with a squirt of methanol and then are good to run for several hours. Their only by-products are a small amount of carbon dioxide and water vapor so they are suited to portable use.
One day engineers see them directly powering gadgets, but as a first step Toshiba has developed the DMFC charger. It can be carried in a bag or car and used to recharge cell phones or other devices while away from a wall socket.
My first reaction to the Dynario was to its size. Most of the prototypes shown by Toshiba over the last few years have pretty small but this charger is about the same size and weight as a PlayStation Portable. That doesn't make it impossible to carry around but I wouldn't want it to be any larger or heavier.
Its weight and smart brushed metal jacket give it a solid feeling.
There's not much to know about using it -- a power button is the only control and there are also a pair of lamps and a fuel gauge. When first switched on a blue light comes on signifying the fuel cell is in operation. Almost immediately the neighboring red light comes on to indicate the internal battery is being charged. This small battery is needed to kick start the motor and begin the power generating reaction.
Once it's switched on it's simply a matter of connecting a charging cable to the fuel cell then to the gadget. The red light goes out and the gadget should indicate charging has begun. That's all there is to it.
Toshiba supplies a cable with a USB socket on the end for hooking up to regular USB cables to charge gadgets. There's another cable with a USB plug on it for times when the DMFC's internal battery doesn't have enough power to start the charger working. On those occasions it can be charged by USB itself although in normal operation it's configured something like a hybrid car so that it charges its own battery once the fuel cell reaction has started.
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