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A development by Motorola could be the first step towards fuel cells small enough to power a mobile phone and laptop computers.

The Motorola boffins have developed and demonstrated a multi-layer ceramic system that processes and delivers fuel and air to the fuel cell membrane electrode assembly (MEA). By eliminating the need for two discrete tubes to carry the methanol fuel and the water, the new system can be made small enough to be used in a miniature fuel cell, the company said.

For those unfamiliar with fuel cell technology, probably the most memorable example of their use was in the Apollo 13 spacecraft. This was the jinxed moon mission during which a liquid oxygen tank that fed the fuel cells exploded 200,000 miles from earth. In order to get back safely, the crew ate hot dogs to keep hydrated and turned off all the heaters to conserve power.

However, most of the time these fuel cells don't explode.

The prototype from Motorola uses a reservoir of methanol (nice and cheap) that, when combined with the oxygen in the air, produces electricity at room temperature. The company said that it would initially work on a hybrid of traditional battery and fuel cell.

Previously, as in the case of Apollo 13, DMFC systems have used discrete tubes to mix the fuel components and deliver the mixture to the fuel cell. The new design from Motorola uses a multi-layered ceramic technology. The lower layer processes the liquid fuel while the top layer looks after passive air delivery.

Jerry Hallmark, manager of Motorola Labs' energy technology lab said that the number of features people now expect on their gadgets meant that there was a greater need for longer lived power sources.

"We need to develop new energy solutions - and fuel cells could be the breakthrough technology. Our challenge is to make these systems small, light and easy for consumers to use," he said. "Eventually, these fuel cells could enable what people just dream of today - a lightweight energy source that would safely power a cellular phone for a month."

And even if the fuel does go bang, it is extremely unlikely that you would be 200,000 miles from home. And even if you are, so long as you remember to eat hot dogs, you should be OK. ®

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