Millennium Cell Shifts Focus to Mobile Hydrogen Batteries

Sodium borohydride fuel developer changes direction from powering fuel cell cars to portable power for laptops computers.

Published: 21-Mar-2005

utives at Eatontown-based Millennium Cell Inc. don't really talk anymore about filling up your car with their clean, clear fuel rather than gasoline.

Now they want you to think smaller. How about powering up a laptop computer for that long ride to Hong Kong or one of those hand-held bar code scanners used to check inventory, or a military radio, if you're a special operations soldier in hostile territory?

It's a new Millennium Cell.

"We are the hydrogen battery company," acting President and Chief Executive Officer H. David Ramm said.

Millennium Cell has developed technology that can generate hydrogen to power a fuel cell, which can run anything from an automobile to a laptop computer.

Its system uses sodium borohydride, a nonflammable, water-based chemical solution manufactured from borax, a common ingredient in laundry detergent. Called Hydrogen on Demand, it produces just enough hydrogen to power a fuel cell.

It's been a good year so far for Millennium Cell. Some highlights:

The company demonstrated a prototype of a product to power an IBM ThinkPad notebook computer at the Intel Developer Forum in San Francisco earlier this month. "Seeing is believing," said John V. Battaglini, vice president of sales, marketing and product management. "We can show people it works."

Millennium Cell and The Dow Chemical Co. announced a three-year joint development program to develop and commercialize portable fuel cell systems for use in consumer electronics and military applications. If the company reaches its milestones, Dow Chemical will own 20 percent of Millennium Cell by the end of the deal. Initially, the agreement gives Dow a 3 percent interest.

Investors have reacted. Millennium Cell shares have jumped nearly 170 percent since hitting a 12-month low of 81 cents on Nov. 12. The stock hit a 52-week high at $2.72 on March 9 and last week was trading at around $2.38 a share.

"It is much more positive, probably more than it has ever been, inside the walls of that company," said Walter Nasdeo, managing director at Ardour Capital Investments, a New York research firm and investment bank.

The news points to an important shift for the company. Originally, Millennium Cell, which was founded in 1998, believed its hydrogen-generating technology would be used in fuel cells as an alternative to the gasoline engine as well as for stand-by power.

Cars would stop at special fueling stations and fill up with sodium borohydride instead of gasoline. The fuel would help the country reduce its dependence on foreign oil, the company envisioned.

DaimlerChrysler incorporated its system into the automaker's fuel cell minivan, the Town and Country Natrium.

But fuel cell technology for automobiles has taken longer to develop, Ramm said. Cars and vehicles that use hybrid technology, a combination of gasoline and electric power, have become popular options.

Also, the cost of the fuel itself is expensive, costing at least 20 times more than gasoline, said Battaglini. By those numbers, a gallon of sodium borohydride would cost $40 compared to a $2 gallon of regular unleaded.

"That market is still viable, but it is still a long way off," Battaglini said.

Market opportunity

Meanwhile, the market for fuel cells used to power portable devices, particularly military applications, has taken off, Ramm said. New fuel cell providers have focused on power sources for small devices, Ramm said.

"Our view of the world is we ought to take our technology and focus on the portable markets," he said. "We are orienting nearly all our efforts towards becoming the hydrogen battery company."

It offers the best opportunity to grow Millennium Cell's sales, executives say. Last year, the company's revenue was just $200,000.

"The world is almost in a constant search for a better battery," Ramm said. "A fuel cell combined with a hydrogen system can provide two to three times better run time than the best current battery technology."

There is a big market out there. For instance, the military uses $200 million worth of batteries for devices the company says will operate better with its technology. Batteries for consumer, medical and industrial portable devices are multibillion-dollar markets.

"If we are successful, just a few percent market share could make this a $30 (million), $40 million revenue company," said John D. Giolli, vice president of finance and acting chief financial officer.

Millennium Cell has a test under way with the Air Force, using its system, along with a small fuel cell by its partner, Protonex Technology Corp., to power military radios.

Typically a soldier on a 72-hour mission carries about 30 pounds of batteries, said Battaglini. The fuel cell cuts the weight down to 10 pounds for the same amount of run time, he added.

Now the company is looking at other types of devices. Besides portable computers, executives are looking at medical devices, such as defibrillators.

How would Millennium Cell's technology work? Let's take a laptop computer. A user would simply pop in a fuel cartridge to power a thin fuel cell to run the computer. When it ran out, the cartridge would be thrown out and replaced.

The cartridges would be available at stores such as Best Buy or CVS, Battaglini said. Millennium would make its money by licensing its technology to manufacturers, Giolli said.

But would people buy that fuel cartridge when they can just recharge a traditional battery?

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