DOT Rules PolyFuel DMFCs Cleared for Airplanes

October 07, 2002 by Jeff Shepard

The US Department of Transportation (DOT, Washington, DC) has reportedly ruled that a direct methanol fuel cell (DMFC) developed by Polyfuel Inc. (Menlo Park, CA) can be taken on airplanes, partly clearing the way for commercial acceptance of fuel cells as an alternative to standard laptop batteries.

Onboard use of fuel cells, which will let notebook computers run 3 to 10 times longer without a recharge, has been questioned because they contain methanol, a flammable liquid. However, the DOT has stated that a PolyFuel DMFC can ride in airplane cabins when it emerges commercially because it contains a relatively low concentration of methanol, according to PolyFuel CEO Jim Balcom.

Methanol makes up only 24 percent of PolyFuel's fuel cells; the rest is water. The fuel cells break down methanol molecules into protons, electrons and carbon dioxide. Protons pass through a specialized membrane, and electrons are shuffled into a wire that powers the device containing the cell. The byproducts from the chemical reaction come together as water molecules.

The PolyFuel DMFCs remain in the development stage, and notebook makers won't likely put them in notebooks until late 2004. "We've still got around a year and a half to go," said Balcom. "We're still in the technology development phase."