Methanol: The Key to Building a Better Battery? Technology companies and even the U.S. military are working on new power sources that last longer than today's batteries. One unexpected answer is a highly flammable liquid fuel that's been around for over 300 years.
NPR logo

Methanol: The Key to Building a Better Battery?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/5386468/5388209" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Methanol: The Key to Building a Better Battery?

Methanol: The Key to Building a Better Battery?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/5386468/5388209" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

JOHN YDSTIE, host:

On Monday's, our business report focuses on technology.

As part of this month's series on new technologies that will change our lies, today we examine the effort to get rid of this all too familiar sound:

(Soundbite of a cell phone tone)

That's a cell phone saying, low battery. We may call our cell phones and laptops wireless devices, but, the fact is, they have to spend a lot of time plugged into a wall, recharging.

That's why technology companies and even the U.S. military are working on new power sources that last far longer than today's batteries. One unexpected answer: a highly flammable liquid fuel that's been around for 300 years.

NPR's Nell Boyce reports that someday, you may fill up your gadgets just like you fuel up a car.

NELL BOYCE reporting:

The fuel is called methanol, or wood alcohol. That's because it used to get distilled from wood. Now, it's mostly synthesized using natural gas.

A few years ago, Army engineer Chris Bolton started wondering if methanol could power military gadgets. One of his first experiments with this fuel was crude, but important.

Mr. CHRIS BOLTON (Chief Engineer, Army Power Division, US Army Communications and Electronics RD&E Center): We put methanol canisters on a mannequin and basically shot him with tracer rounds. We couldn't set it alight in that circumstance, so, you know, we're not going to be equipping the troops with gasoline that's going to turn them into human torches every time they get shot.

BOYCE: Good to know. War zones have a lot of flying bullets. But the battlefield isn't the best place to find new batteries or rechargers. If a typical infantry platoon is going off on a five-day mission, Bolton says it must carry over 150 pounds of batteries to deal with a laundry list of electronics.

Mr. BOLTON: They have night vision devices. They have image intensification devices, IR devices, laser range finders, radios, GPS, even a few laptops out there. But the - just the average energy for the soldier is going up, because we give him more electronics.

BOYCE: To keep those gadgets going, the military is taking a close look at methanol. A teacup of methanol can hold a huge amount of energy. Four or five times more than a battery of the same size and weight.

Bolton works at Fort Belvoir, near Washington, D.C. At his lab, he shows off one methanol power pack he's been testing. It's a device the size of an office phone, square and green. He picks up a plastic bottle of methanol.

Mr. BOLTON: We screw that onto the system. Then it has a simple little on-off switch. You hear some of the noise on startup. It's basically a little chemical plant.

BOYCE: Tiny pumps move the methanol through a chemical process that extracts the energy without setting the fuel on fire. It's called a fuel cell, and the idea has been around for a long time. But now they're getting smaller.

Bolton expects this system to shrink down even more in the next year.

Special Ops troops, which often go out on secret missions that can last for days, could be carrying it within two years. And the military's real warriors could soon be followed by the business world's road warriors. These executives travel all the time and they hate having to wait for a battery to charge. That's why a slew of technology companies are also looking at methanol.

Jerry Hallmark works on power sources for Motorola.

Mr. JERRY HALLMARK (Manager, Energy Technologies, Motorola Labs): We get complaints that the battery doesn't last long enough; we need something better. So it's still somewhat of a niche. It's going to be the high-end user, the road warrior, that's going to use something like this. But there is a definite need.

BOYCE: And the need goes beyond traveling executives. Future gadgets, now on the drawing boards, are going to require more and more power.

Now, computer companies have started to make low-power chips, and batteries do improve a little bit every year, but Hallmark says it's not going to be enough.

Mr. HALLMARK: People want to have video on their cell phones. They want to have music. They want to have, you know, high-speed Internet connection. And they want to have access to this, you know, hours a day. At some point, a battery's not going to be able to keep up with that demand.

BOYCE: Before methanol can meet that demand in millions of consumer products, the fuel cells have to get smaller-and cheaper. Right now, they're often made with platinum, an expensive metal.

Still, Hallmark says that several new developments make methanol fuel cells look much more plausible. One is a decision by transportation officials. Starting next year, they'll allow people to take small, sealed canisters of this flammable fuel onto airplanes.

Mr. HALLMARK: If that hadn't happened, and we had devices that people couldn't travel with, you know, that really would limit the market tremendously.

BOYCE: Another development is that some well-known companies are talking about ways of making methanol easy to buy in little cartridges. It may soon be possible to walk into a convenience store in Hong Kong or New York, buy a cheap methanol cartridge for your laptop, and then use it nonstop for hours.

That's a scenario painted by Rick McKitrick(ph). He's senior manager for consumer products at BIC. He says his company has never made batteries, but every day it does make four million pocket lighters.

Mr. RICK MCKITRICK (Senior Manager, Consumer Products Division, BIC): Which is basically a liquid fuel that we put in a plastic body, which is very, very similar to what we'll - a micro-fuel cell cartridge will be. We'll be putting methanol and water in a plastic cartridge.

BOYCE: Now that momentum is building, more and more electronics companies are starting to build methanol-guzzling prototypes. Gregory Dolan works with the Methanol Institute, an industry group. He says that these prototypes go way longer than battery-powered devices.

Mr. GREGORY DOLAN (Vice President of Communications, Methanol Institute): For example, Toshiba has an mp3 player which runs for 60 hours on just 10 milliliters of methanol. Samsung has demonstrated a laptop that runs for 15 hours and Hitachi has already demonstrated a cell phone that has 2.5 times the run-time of current lithium technology and stand-by time of as much as a month before you have to put in a new fuel cartridge.

BOYCE: But Dolan says fuel cells probably wouldn't replace batteries. That's because batteries are better at handling spikes in power demands, like when you first turn your machine on. So your wireless device may end up having a fuel cell that will let you keep your battery recharged without having to plug it in.

Nell Boyce, NPR News.

YDSTIE: Next Monday we're going to take a look at the so-called Last Mile - the distance between the computer in your house and the fast lanes of the information superhighway.

There's more about our series on technology's new frontiers at npr.org.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm John Ydstie.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep, in Baghdad.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.