The International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) has formed a working group to draw up standards to ensure compatibility between micro fuel-cells. The fuel cells could be launched as early as next year as an alternative power source for handheld electronic devices such as music players and digital cameras.

Formation of the new Working Group 10 (WG10) of the IEC's Technical Committee 105 (TC105) was approved in a vote on 30 July, Toshiba said. It will be chaired by Dr Fumio Ueno, who works for Toshiba's display devices and components control centre. The group itself was proposed by Toshiba along with other Japanese companies.

WG10 is tasked with setting an international standard to ensure compatibility between the fuel cells and their fuel cartridges - especially important since the cells need to be regularly recharged with methanol.

The first WG10 meeting is scheduled to begin on 20 September in Chicago, and the group hopes to set common guidelines by 2007. However, a number of companies are predicting the commercial launch of micro fuel cells before then.

"Just because no international standard has been agreed, that doesn't necessarily mean competing manufacturers won't be working together," said a Toshiba spokesman. "Since Toshiba, along with other Japanese manufacturers, are members of the working group, we will know what is happening and being discussed. When we begin manufacturing and introduce micro fuel cells, we can make products that will have compatibility with the IEC standards."

Toshiba has already shown prototype micro fuel cells designed for use in portable electronic devices. In June this year, the company unveiled a prototype direct methanol fuel cell (DMFC) that is small enough for use in a gadget such as an MP3 player and can provide enough power for 20 hours of use on a single charge of two cubic centimeters of methanol. Toshiba expects the DMFC to be ready for sale sometime in 2005.

Hitachi is also targeting 2005 for the launch of a micro fuel cell and compatible PDA, it said late last year. Hitachi is working on a micro fuel cell with Tokai, a major producer of disposable lighters and aerosol dispensers. It has developed a prototype that is around one centimeter in diameter and between five and six centimeters in length - roughly the same size as an AA battery.

In addition to micro fuel cells for handheld devices, a number of companies have also shown or said they are developing fuel cells for larger products such as notebook computers. NEC and Toshiba have both said they will launch computers powered by such devices this year.

WG10 is the third working group formed as part of TC105 that is looking at micro fuel cell standardization. The others are Working Group 8, which is looking at safety standards, and Working Group 9, which is looking at performance standards.