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Boston Globe: Lilliputian Systems' pocketsized fuel cell for recharging portable electronics

09.13.2010

By Scott Kirsner, Globe Columnist

If you're like me, most of your electronic devices constantly operate on the edge of powerlessness. You pick up a digital camera to take a candid picture, and the red "no battery" icon flashes. Mid-way through an important call, you start getting the dreaded "10% battery life remaining" message.

For the past decade, a Wilmington company called Lilliputian Systems has been working on what it believes is the solution: a pocket-sized generator that turns butane — lighter fuel —into power for your gadgets. (I first met with co-founder Sam Schaevitz in 2001, as he was spinning the business out of MIT's Microsystems Technology Lab.) The company, which has raised a bit more than $100 million in funding, hopes to have a product on the market "really soon," according to vice president of business development Mouli Ramani. They haven't yet announced where you'll be able to buy a Lilliputian Mobile Power System —or whether other, brand-name electronics companies will market them as charging accessories —but Ramani did tell me that the device will cost between $150 and $200, with the price dropping as production volume increases. Fuel pods will cost between $2 and $5, depending on the size: a small one might be capable of recharging your smartphone's completely depleted battery 10 times, while a large would give you 20 recharges.

Last month, I put Lilliputian on my list of " 12 Companies to Track," since the product seems so promising for road warriors who simply can't stay tethered to an outlet in an airport, rental car, or hotel room for very long. Yesterday, Ramani invited me to Lilliputian to see the company's prototype in action —and yes, get a little juice for my half-full iPhone. The device is taller and thicker than your mobile phone; it resembles a cigarette pack that has grown an inch or so on the top. Inside is a chip that contains a solid oxide fuel cell, which converts the hydrogen and oxygen in butane into electricity, at very high heats (around 750 degrees Celsius, or 1380 degrees Fahrenheit.) But Lilliputian's fuel cell is insulated well enough that you can touch the hottest part of its case, and it's still cooler than a typical laptop that has been running for a few minutes. On the prototype, indicator lights glow green to show that the Mobile Power System is charging your device; blue to show that you've clipped in a new butane pod (the pod is that metallic rectangle on top), and red to show you that you're low on fuel. The device has a standard USB output port (on the right side) that can deliver about 3 watts of power —enough to recharge a GPS, digital camera, or mobile phone, but not enough for a laptop or tablet. (The cable coming from the left side of the MPS prototype in the picture is for diagnostic purposes.)

The butane pods aren't refillable, Ramani told me, but they will be recyclable when empty. Many early users of the Mobile Power System may opt to get butane pods delivered on a subscription basis, he said. That could create a nice razor-and-blades business model for Lilliputian. The fuel cell's only exhaust is a tiny amount of CO2 and water vapor, Ramani said — it emits about 1/20th the content of what a human exhales in a single breath, over the course of one mobile phone charging cycle. Lilliputian and other fuel cell makers have already successfully lobbied the FAA to allow consumers to use the devices —not just carry them —on airplanes, and Ramani said that the company believes a cigarette lighter (which produces a flame) or a can of hairspray (which can explode when punctured) are more potentially dangerous.

In a test lab, Lilliputian systems engineer Souren Lefian plugged a white iPhone charging cable into the Mobile Power System prototype and forwarded a few watts to my phone. There wasn't much that was thrilling about the process, aside from knowing that I can now claim to have gassed up my iPhone. Then, Lefian switched cables and charged up his Android phone. On Lefian's computer screen, a graphic showed how much fuel was left in the MPS' tank, as well as how many watts it was sending to the phone, and how full the phone's battery was.

It's an open question whether consumers will cotton to carrying along an accessory — and, perhaps, a spare butane pod —to keep their small electronics charged up. (A fuel cell that would also rejuvenate laptops and tablets would be much more useful.) But Ramani says Lilliputian will target business travelers, outdoorsmen who rely on GPS devices, and families that travel with a collection of electronics. "We think the Mobile Power System will change people's relationship with power," he says, eradicating the worry of running out at a crucial moment.

Ramani said that rolling out the Mobile Power System will be Lilliputian's primary focus for the next few years, but that the company also has plans to develop more powerful fuel cells that will be able to recharge laptops and tablets, and also integrate its fuel cells into those devices when they're manufactured. While Lilliputian is producing small numbers of its fuel cell chips in Wilmington, the company has an agreement with Intel to crank out larger volumes at the chipmaker's plant in Hudson. Over the next year or two, it'll be fascinating to watch how Lilliputian rolls out the Mobile Power System; the partners it chooses; and how consumers react to it.

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