Charged up over fuel cells

Charged up over fuel cells

CHAMPAIGN – Renew Power grabbed considerable attention in September with its plans to develop formic acid fuel cells.

But there's a second company on the University of Illinois campus hoping to capture a share of the fuel cell market.

INI Power Systems is "flying under the radar," said Larry Markoski, a UI research specialist who founded the company two years ago.

INI hopes to develop microfluidic fuel cells that can power laptop computers.

Currently, laptop users rely on rechargeable batteries to power their computers when they're away from an electrical outlet. But the batteries last only two to four hours without a recharge.

Markoski's product – tentatively called the INI Personal Power Plant – could operate three to five times as long as a conventional rechargeable battery of the same size and weight. You could use it in a laptop computer for 12 to 24 hours without having to plug it in.

Fuel cells are electrochemical generators that produce direct current from a chemical reaction.

Markoski said most fuel cells are passive, but his is a dynamic, microfluidic system.

"Its complexity leads to better potential for performance," he said.

He compared his fuel cell to a "complex circulatory system" with microchannels analagous to the capillaries of the human circulatory system.

Markoski said his design eliminates the common problem of "crossover," in which fuel gets on the wrong side of the electrode membrane assembly, resulting in fuel consumption and efficiency loss.

He plans to market the fuel cell to laptop makers as an option for their computers, rather than selling it directly to end users.

Markoski, 34, of Champaign is a chemist by training. It's his second attempt to start a company, having founded Chromax Chromatography Solutions in 1998.

That company developed chromatography devices, used by chemists in industry and academia for chemical analysis.

During the testing phase, Chromax sold about 20 of the devices, but when Markoski decided he wanted to ramp up sales, he made an exclusive arrangement with Cole-Parmer Instrument Co. to distribute and sell the device.

A listing in the company's catalog failed to produce many sales, and Markoski decided to pull the plug on that project.

The device was too expensive, and the market wasn't big enough, he said.

But the market for fuel cells could be huge, and Markoski's concept for the INI Personal Power Plant has already won some admirers.

So far, INI Power Systems has attracted a $100,000 Small Business Technology Transfer contract from the U.S. Army, as well as a $100,000 commitment from IllinoisVentures, a UI program that works to commercialize university technologies.

About two months ago, INI Power Systems opened an office in EnterpriseWorks, the UI's incubator facility for start-up companies.

John Banta, chief executive officer of IllinoisVentures, said Markoski's innovation has great potential, but a lot of work lies ahead.

"This is an example of a developmental commitment," Banta said. "It's a very early technology that will need more time to develop before it becomes the basis for a business."

Banta said the market for microelectronic fuel cells is projected to be $6 billion to $8 billion.

"A number of players will be successful in addressing that market, and we think this technology might be very useful in that marketplace," Banta said. "INI's innovations exploit microfluidics to make producing a fuel cell easier and less complicated."

Most fuel cells use methanol as their fuel of choice. But Markoski's concept for a fuel cell isn't limited to methanol.

"INI's innovation is fuel-agnostic, in that it could use a variety of different fuels," Banta said.

Markoski said he has worked with a number of fuels, including methanol, formic acid and inorganic fuels.

Renew Power, the other fuel cell company on campus, is developing a product that uses formic acid as its power source. That company uses technology developed by Richard Masel, a UI professor of chemistry and biomolecular engineering.

Renew touts a simple design as one of its assets. It's targeting the cellphone market as one of the primary markets for its fuel cells. Like INI, Renew has received support from IllinoisVentures and has an office in EnterpriseWorks.

INI Power Systems derives its name from the "I-L-L ...

I-N-I" chant heard at UI sporting events. But Markoski isn't an Illinois native – he's originally from Wayland, Mich.

He received a bachelor's degree in chemistry and molecular biology from the University of Michigan in 1995. He then worked for Parke-Davis Pharmaceuticals in Ann Arbor, Mich., from 1995 to 1998.

Markoski came to the UI in 1998 as a research specialist in chemistry, working primarily in materials research with organic polymers.

He said he didn't set out to be an entrepreneur.

"I always knew I was an inventor," he said. "If you ever want to make money off your invention, you've got to be an entrepreneur."

Markoski's wife, Julie, is INI's only other employee. She has a doctorate in chemistry and a master's degree in business administration from the UI.

The company has also gotten help from Paul Kenis, a UI professor of chemical engineering, and graduate student Eric Choban. Both are equity holders in INI Power Systems.

Markoski said he hopes to have an alpha prototype by the end of this year, a beta prototype by the middle of next year and "a box to fit into a laptop" within 12 to 18 months.

"We hope to have production ready within two years," he said.

For the time being, he's content keeping INI a quiet company.

"So many fuel cell companies are tooting their horn, but they haven't come up with a product," he said. "When we have a product to demonstrate that works well, that's when we'll be looking for press."

"I believe we have potential," he said. "This nut can be cracked in many ways."

You can reach Don Dodson at (217) 351-5227 or via e-mail at dodson@news-gazette.com.

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