In October, The Wall Street Journal wrote that the company would be shipping its matchbook-sized fuel cells late this year. But now, the company — which is developing the cells for a range of consumer electronics, including cell phones and laptops — isn’t saying when its products will be commercially available, only that it plans to announce the timing this summer. Does that mean we can expect a delay?
Mouli Ramani, vice president for business development, tells me that’s not the case. When he spoke with the Journal, he was referring to a test-market launch with its partners, not a commercial launch that would make the fuel cells available to the general public, he says. In other words, don’t expect to be able to buy Lilliputian fuel cells at Best Buy this year.
The first product will likely be an external charger that can plug into cell phones and other devices, rather than a fuel cell integrated into a device, according to Mass High Tech. Meanwhile, the company is using its new funding to work on integrating its product into its customers devices and to upgrade its pilot wafer-manufacturing plant into what it calls a “small-volume fabrication facility.”
Ramani didn’t say how much Lilliputian’s pilot plant produces or how much its expanded facility will make, but did say the upgrade includes adding some automation tools — in the pilot plant, skilled technicians are manufacturing mostly by hand — and adding around 100 jobs in the next 24 months. “Almost all” of the jobs will go to the factory, but some will be reserved for sales and other positions, he says.
Fuel cells produce power by mixing fuel with air and water between a thin, reactive film membrane in an electrochemical reaction. The advantage for cell phones, laptops and other devices is that fuel cells don’t need recharging, meaning customers don’t need to constantly search for an electrical outlet. Instead, they use fuel cartridges — in Lilliputian’s case, recyclable butane cartridges — that customers can replace without waiting, similar to the concept of changing batteries instead of recharging them.
Lilliputian is developing a solid-oxide fuel cell, which uses a ceramic membrane and — unlike other fuel cells — doesn’t require an expensive platinum catalyst. The company began shipping prototypes — for testing — from its pilot plant in October. It was founded in 2001 by former Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers with a set of exclusive licenses from MIT and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories.
Of course, fuel-cell companies have plenty to prove and could be sensitive to hints of delays, which have been par for the course for decades. The higher cost of fuel cells has been one of the biggest challenges, along with the lack of a distribution and supply chain. After all, batteries are ubiquitous and device manufacturers are already very familiar with them, and retail stores carry them.
Lilliputian is one of a number of companies that hopes to buck the trend, and it should have a large market if it can come out with products at the right price. Fuel-cell companies hope to tap into a rechargeable battery market that reached worldwide sales of $36 million last year, according to research firm SBI, which forecasts that number will reach $51 billion by 2013. According to Wintergreen Research, the micro fuel cell market reached $75 million by the end of last year and is projected to reach $5.59 billion by 2015. Other fuel-cell companies targeting consumer electronics include MTI Micro Fuel Cells, Angstrom Power and Medis Technologies, which announced layoffs last month. Large electronics manufacturers, such as Toshiba, also are developing consumer cells.
Photo, courtesy of Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick’s office, shows the governor visiting Lilliputian Systems in November.