Web Extra: The New Zinc Battery

The core business for the 12-year-old Israeli-based Electric Fuel Corp. has been making zinc-air fuel cells for electric vehicles, defense and security products. Three years ago, however, a new application employing zinc-air technology promised to bring the company's line of products to the mass-consumer market with the development of precharged Instant Power cell phone batteries. The batteries, which have been on the market for about one year, are ready for use the moment they're removed from their protective packaging and enable phone use without electrical power or traditional batteries.

"These batteries provide up to 14 hours of talk time and 21 days standby," says Mitchell Horwitz, vice president of North American sales and marketing. (Press releases have taken an even less conservative estimate of 16 hours and 25 days.) "They're great emergency backup, they're convenient, and they're easy to use when you're in a location where you don't have the ability to charge your phone or don't want to be hassled with carrying a charger."

The only drawback is that the battery is currently only available for selected Nokia, Sumsung, Motorola starTAC and Ericsson phones. Distributed through retail stores and catalogs such as Circuit City, CompUSA, iGo and Wal-Mart (under the name EverActive) the battery's patented technology allows fuel-activating oxygen to travel through holes in its casing. The batteries snap into place like the phones' regular power source and weigh less than four ounces. The cell phone battery's MSRP is $16.95. Is that a lot for something that will be thrown out? "People don't think of it as an investment but rather a convenience," says Horwitz.

When you're finished with the battery, simply dispose of it like you would a traditional alkaline battery; it's nonhazardous. "The zinc-air technology is the safest technology out there," he says. "It's what's used in hearing ads. We just changed the application to make the batteries for the mobile products." According to Horwitz, Electric Fuel has 40 existing patents and another 30 in the works.

In March, Electric Fuel announced the availability of its Instant Power Charger for cell phones and PDAs that uses the same zinc-air technology. The unit plugs into the phone and weighs less than three ounces, so it's easy to keep the phone/PDA and charger assembly in a pocket, briefcase or even on a table without them being a distraction. If desired, one can keep talking on the cell phone or using the PDA during the charging process. For $19.95 MSRP, the charger comes with the disposable PowerCartridge power source, a SmartCord electronic adapter that connects the cartridge to the phone or PDA and an airtight pouch for cartridge storage between uses. Within a minute of being connected to the phone or PDA, the cartridge starts delivering power; the charge cycle should be completed within two hours. The cartridge is expected to be good for up to three charges for phones and eight for PDAs; additional cartridges have an MSRP of $9.95.

The Instant Power Charger is available for Ericsson, Motorola, Nokia, Panasonic and Siemens cell phones, including WAP-enabled models, and will soon be available for Audiovox, Mitsubishi, Philips, Samsung and Sagem brands. New chargers are available for the Palm V, Compaq iPAQ, Handspring Prism, Visor Phone and Novatel Minstrel V wireless modems. Chargers for the HP Jornada and Casio Cassiopeia are expected to be available soon.

Electric Fuel's batteries and chargers need to be stored within the provided airtight foil packaging when not in use, so that air can't reach the product and maintain the chemical reaction. Unopened, the battery and charger both have shelf lives of two years; once opened, they will last up to three months if properly stored.

Although currently touted as being a great emergency solution or backup for when users are in areas where it's difficult or impossible to charge their primary batteries, Horwitz sees this technology expanding into more widespread use as our increasing desire for more complex applications continues to strain the capabilities of today's primary battery technology. "People use their phones for more than just talking," Horwitz says. "As phones and PDAs come together, we will be supporting both. Additional applications and increased functionality are a tremendous strain on battery drain. If you're not mobile, you might as well use your PC. If you're mobile, you're increasingly going to be relying on your phone."

Horwitz expects the company to introduce camcorder batteries sometime this spring. With six hours of recording time at an MSRP of less than $20, these batteries will be a major advance from the current camcorder batteries that are as expensive as $100 for less recording time. He also hopes that the end of the year will see the first line of zinc-air batteries for laptops, although he admits that it is trickier to make batteries for laptops than for cell phones or PDAs because the voltages of the various models differ so widely.

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