Each day consumers snap up 10 million Bic razors and 5 million of the colorful plastic lighters made famous by the ad campaign "Flick My Bic." Those volumes pale in comparison to Bic's ubiquitous pens: The French company sold its 100 billionth in 2005. Bic, which had sales of about $2 billion in 2006, has spent 30 years honing the art of making disposable consumer goods.
Now, Bic wants to use that expertise for something far more challenging than pens or lighters. It's designing disposable cartridges for fuel cells, a kind of power supply that could someday eliminate the need to constantly recharge mobile phones or laptop computers. Electronics makers are drawn to fuel cells because today's rechargeable batteries can't keep up with the demands users place on portable gadgets. If you spend any time surfing the Web from your phone and e-mailing your friends, as well as making calls, you probably have to recharge at least once a day. With a fuel cell, you'd never have to look for an outlet; You'd just pop out a spent fuel cartridge and insert a new one.
The challenge, says Steve Burkhart, Bic's executive in charge of this technology, "is to make the cartridge as nontechnical as you think a pen is, and make it safe." Unlike batteries, which store electricity, fuel cells generate a current in a chemical reaction. Bic's new cartridges will provide some of the necessary chemicals, which could be methanol (wood alcohol) or any of several alternatives.
Bic has no desire to manufacture the fuel cells themselves. These devices were first commercialized more than 50 years ago and are used in various industrial settings. Bic will leave that part of the business to companies such as Samsung and LG, which are eager to sell mini fuel cells—assuming they can bring down the price and the size enough for them to fit in a handset. If the electronics makers succeed in their mission, Bic sees a big opportunity in the replaceable cartridges, which might actually resemble the ink containers in its pens. Each one would cost just a couple of dollars, and could conceivably keep a mobile phone running for weeks at a stretch. If Bic and the fuel-cell makers can get the engineering right, "they could significantly extend the run time of portable devices," says Heather Daniell, a technology analyst at New Energy Finance, a London market research firm.
Bic's big adventure with fuel cells began in 2002. Ken Cooper, the company's U.S.-based director of strategic business development, was in a New Haven (Conn.) drugstore and spotted a cordless travel hair dryer with a tiny motor that ran on butane. This got Cooper thinking about fuel cells for handheld gadgets—a hot topic in consumer electronics circles. Few companies in the world package as much fuel every day as Bic does in its butane lighters, he reasoned. So Cooper decided Bic should take a gamble and develop fuel-cell cartridges that are "lighter-like, pocketable, yet safe."
Cooper presented the idea to Bic Group Chairman Bruno Bich, who immediately saw the logic. Batteries are sold in convenience stores the world over, right next to disposable lighters and razors, and Bic's distribution network reaches more than 3 million retail outlets in 160 countries. Even the French word for cartridge, cartouche, is the same word for pen refills. Bic CEO Mario Guevara now calls fuel cells "an important strategic initiative." His research and business development teams "are working on all aspects of this technology, including building alliances with fuel-cell producers and electronics manufacturers," he says.
Some experts still question whether fuel cells will ever replace rechargeable batteries. But prospects got a lot better in November, when international aviation authorities tentatively agreed to let airline passengers and crew carry on devices with fuel cell power sources. Earlier this fall, Toshiba (TOSBG) showed off three prototypes that fit the bill: a media player, a mobile phone, and a laptop. And Medis Technologies (MDTL) of New York will soon sell a stand-alone fuel-cell unit for travelers who just want to juice up their regular mobile phones. About the size of a BlackBerry, the $25 device will provide enough extra power for 30 hours of talk time.