ENRG - Replacing batteries with butane cartridges

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Beyond batteries

By Scott Kirsner

Over a tasty lunch at Emma’s Pizza, Sam Schaevitz explains all the things that are wrong with rechargeable batteries.

The litany will sound pretty familiar if you own a cell phone or laptop.

Batteries die at the worst possible moments. They take too long to recharge. And after you’ve used them for a month or two, you start to notice that they don’t store quite as much juice as they once did.

"There are no new technologies in the pipeline to provide a performance improvement in traditional batteries," says Schaevitz, a preternaturally-polished 22-year old Ph.D. candidate at MIT’s Microsystems Technology Lab. "Yet [consumer] electronics keep getting more power-hungry. To get further from here, it’s got to be a fuel-based device."


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By fuel-based, Schaevitz is thinking of a mini-generator that would run on butane cartridges, much like a cigarette lighter. The company he’s beginning to build, Lilliputian Systems, plans to offer generators the same size as today’s cell phone and laptop batteries, but with an increase in performance of at least ten-fold, and possibly as much as fifty-fold. "We don’t think a month of running time for a cell phone would be out of the question," Schaevitz says.

Lilliputian’s generator is based on technology developed under DARPA sponsorship at MIT (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency was also the Internet’s godfather). Here’s how it would work: the generator would take in butane, mix it with oxygen, and heat it up to 1000 degrees Celsius on a microchip about the size of a dime. The temperature increase splits the butane and oxygen mixture into carbon monoxide and hydrogen gas, which feed a solid oxide fuel cell that produces electricity. The by-products of the reaction are carbon dioxide and water, which Schaevitz says are "approximately one-fiftieth of [what’s] produced by a birthday candle."

Schaevitz says Lilliputian’s generators would have useful lives of two to three years. Recharging would be instant -- just pop in a new butane cartridge. And performance wouldn’t degrade over the generator’s lifetime.

Of course, there are questions. Like: how will the airlines react to a butane-powered laptop? Will another company working in this field, like Motorola or New Hampshire’s DEKA Research, deliver a comparable generator first? And can Lilliputian Systems, which right now consists of Schaevitz and Aleks Franz, a research scientist in the Microsystems Technology Lab, actually deliver a working prototype in 18 months, as they promise?

The pair, who participated in this year’s MIT $50K Entrepreneurship Competition, are selectively circulating their business plan, looking for a CEO, and trying to raise enough money to hire a 12-person team to develop the prototype.

Hal, Get Me a Table

We’re just getting accustomed to the strange sight of someone walking down the street and talking into his cell phone via a little wire that dangles from one ear.

It may take a bit longer to get used to seeing people converse with their handheld computers.

Lewis Leiboh, a developer at Boston-based Lobby7, seems to realize that it’s a bit odd for him to be asking his Compaq iPaq to show him a menu for the Canaletto restaurant in Las Vegas. A few seconds after his somewhat sheepish request, the menu comes up. After a couple of attempts, he successfully requests a reservation for 7 p.m., and a message on the screen confirms it.

It’s called a multi-modal interface, and it’s part of a research project being conducted by Lobby7 and Speechworks International. The idea is that as cellular phones and handheld computers converge, we’ll want to be able to ask for information either by speaking or by pointing and clicking, and receive that information either from an automated voice on the other end, or from a screen display.

This project, like Lilliputian’s generator, is being funded by DARPA and has strong MIT roots.

In a demo for DARPA officials next month, Speechworks CTO Michael Phillips and Hugo Barra, Lobby7’s director of innovation, will show a pretty nifty navigation app. Using the iPaq, you’ll be able to touch a spot on a graphical map and ask, `How do I get here?’ or `Show me the restaurants near here.’ The system will then be able to speak the directions to you step-by-step, waiting for you to say `next’ before moving on. It will also show a map of where you are as you complete each step.

"We really think that every single application you need on the run will have to be multi-modal," says Barra. "You’ll want to speak and get either visual data or spoken data from your e-mail account, your brokerage, an airline’s reservation system." United Airlines is already a big customer of SpeechWorks’, and Barra observes that when asking for a list of all the daily flights from Boston to San Francisco, it would be more convenient to ask for them verbally but see them as a textual list.

For Lobby7, the SpeechWorks partnership is part of a repositioning. The company launched last year out of the Roy family’s I-Group/HotBank incubator as a wireless consultancy, survived the incubator’s demise, and now employs nearly 30 employees. Founded by a group of friends from MIT, Lobby7 is now "all about multi-modal," Barra says.

The problem with multi-modal applications is that they require a 2.5G wireless network, which is equally adept at handling voice and data at speeds of up to 144 kilobits per second. But 2.5G networks haven’t yet come online in the U.S., though that could happen as early as next year.

Awaiting the roll-out of 2.5G networks will force Lobby7 to be patient. In the meantime, though, they’re talking with a handful of theme parks, resort operators, casinos, and sporting arenas ? places that could build their own enclosed 2.5G networks. Barra envisions high-rollers reserving seats for a show using a handheld provided by the casino, or premium customers at a theme park making an appointment to experience a popular attraction. Barra says Lobby’s first multi-modal client project will debut within a year.

I’m a bit skeptical that building closed-loop wireless networks -- it would cost roughly $500,000 to do the FleetCenter -- and lending out handheld devices will be a smart business move for venue and resort owners, even though Barra insists that the first ones to do it will be "differentiated," creating a tighter bond with their best customers.

But what’s most interesting about this project is how DARPA funding is underwriting R&D at SpeechWorks, a publicly-traded company, at a time when the company might not have the resources to invest in such forward-looking technology itself.

"We wouldn’t have been able to do a project like this, which looks three to five years out, without the DARPA grant," says SpeechWorks CTO Phillips, who previously did research at MIT’s Lab for Computer Science, where much of the funding comes from DARPA. The grant for the multi-modal project is $1.3 million over three years.

Laurels for Leaders

The Massachusetts Interactive Media Council holds its fourth annual Interactive Leadership Awards ceremony this Wednesday at the Westin Copley. It’ll be emceed by MIMC chairman Larry Weber of Weber Public Relations Worldwide and MIMC president Scott Randall of FairMarket.

Part of the event consists of MIMC’s annual meeting. Seven new members will join MIMC’s board, replacing five departing members. Up for ratification on Wednesday are Patti Maes of OpenRatings; Roger Letalien of IBM’s Center for e-Business Innovation in Cambridge; Jeremy Allaire of Macromedia; Tom Simons of Partners & Simons; Lisa DeSisto of Boston.com; Aaron Strout of Fidelity Investments; and Peter O’Neil of Nighthawk Communications.

Scott Kirsner is a Boston freelance writer and a contributing editor at Wired and Fast Company magazines. He can be reached by e-mail at kirsner@att.net

-- Anonymous, June 18, 2001

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