A New York-based company that is one of a handful developing fuel cells for consumer electronics devices, says it has started commercial production of a fuel cell-based recharger for Microsoft.

Medis Technologies has produced the first Microsoft-branded rechargers, said the company CEO, Robert Lifton. "It's the first commercial sale for our company and we believe the first commercial sale in quantity for the industry," he said.

Fuel cells produce electricity through a chemical reaction, typically involving methanol, although Medis said its devices used a proprietary alkaline fuel. One day researchers hope to fit fuel cells inside products like cell phones and music players, enabling the devices to be recharged in much the same way a lighter is replenished with a squirt of fuel.

Fuel cells aren't yet small enough to be integrated inside products, however, so their first use is coming as rechargers offering the ability to replenish a dead battery when the user is away from an electrical socket. The product Medis is supplying to Microsoft is just such a device.

Production began on Friday on a semi-automated line that has a capacity, when fully operational, of between 20,000 and 30,000 devices per month, said Lifton. By the end of June a fully-automated line with a capacity of 1 million devices per month should be up and running at a plant in Ireland, run by contract electronics manufacturer Celestica. Lifton declined to say how many fuel cells Microsoft had purchased or its plans for the product.

Perhaps the most likely use is as a recharger for Microsoft's recently-launched Zune digital music player. It's one of the few portable electronics devices made by Microsoft that falls within the product target range for fuel cells. However it might also find use as a recharger for Windows-based PDAs or smart phones or for an as-yet-unannounced product.

Potentially the fuel cells, which Medis calls the "24/7 Power Pack," could be compatible with a number of devices. Medis envisages the disposable power pack hooking up to products through an adapter lead so a single fuel cell could be used to charge several different products.

Medis demonstrated the power pack at the US Senate Technologies Conference and Exhibition in Washington earlier this month and has been shopping the product around to a number of potential customers including cell phone providers. It has also signed several distribution deals for the power packs.