A United Nations committee has cleared the path for a revolution in battery technology with the approval of shipping regulations for fuel cell cartridges.

The Sub-Committee of Experts on the Transport of Dangerous Goods approved a new shipping category for the cartridges (details [pdf]) which are smaller, cheaper and last longer than existing lithium ion batteries. Within a year, they are expected to appear in laptops, which will inevitably be carried onto planes.

The committee stopped short of that, but did approve of their transportation within cargo holds of planes and ships - a vital cog in the cells' success and something that will help efforts to have them approved for passenger use, said Brian Walsh, director of member services for the US Fuel Cell Council.

"It's really the beginning of the whole cycle," Walsh said of the committee approval. "We're going to use this in approaching the international aviation transport agencies."

The UN committee's model regulation establishes fuel cell cartridges as a separate shipping category from other methanol containers, which now can be shipped in cargo holds under rules for transporting dangerous goods in machinery. Fuel cell cartridges, designed not to be opened by consumers unlike some other methanol containers, power fuel cells, which mix methanol with air and water to produce electrical power. The fuel cells being developed for laptops can run for up to 20 hours, outpacing current laptop batteries.

That fuel cell life would be useful for passengers on long-haul airplane flights, but passengers are currently forbidden to take cartridges containing methanol on-board aircraft as a carry-on item because methanol is flammable.

The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) is in the early stages of a process that would allow the fuel cells to be carried in passenger sections of airplanes, said Gregory Dolan, vice president for communications and policy at the Methanol Institute, a trade group.

The ICAO process typically takes about two years, and Dolan expects a ruling on methanol fuel cells in 2006, about the time that vendors plan to bring the first laptop fuel cells to market, he said. He called the UN approval a "big step forward" for fuel cell technology acceptance.

Walsh agreed, calling the decision a "precursor" to ICAO action. ICAO members "seem to be on board," he added.