Toshiba Eyes Fuel Cells, Cell-based TV by 2009

Toshiba plans to begin mass production of Direct Methanol Fuel Cells by March next year and to have a television based on the powerful Cell microprocessor on sale before the end of the same year, it said Thursday.

The roadmap was revealed when Toshiba outlined an aggressive mid-term management plan that seeks to push sales to ¥10 trillion (US$96 billion) from last year's ¥7.7 trillion and propel operating profit to ¥500 billion from last year's ¥238 billion.

Toshiba has been developing the fuel cells and Cell chip for several years, and their readiness for commercial use coupled with continuing advances in the company's chip-making expertise are expected to be key drivers behind growth in Toshiba's digital products and electronic devices divisions. Toshiba is targeting annual growth of 12 percent in sales and profits for the businesses over the next three years, it said.

Direct Methanol Fuel Cells (DMFCs) produce electricity from a reaction between methanol, water and air. The only by-products of the reaction are a small amount of water vapor and carbon dioxide, so the fuel cells are typically seen as a much greener form of energy than traditional batteries. A big advantage of DMFCs is that they can be replenished with a new cartridge of methanol in seconds.

Toshiba and several of its competitors have been showing prototype DMFCs for at least four years but, despite several statements regarding commercialization, products have never reached consumers.

While the DMFCs could still be delayed, Thursday's announcement represents Toshiba strongest commitment yet to getting DMFCs out of the door. Toshiba has set aside a portion of its capital expenditure to build a DMFC production line and products are now expected this fiscal year, which is the period to the end of March 2009.

The Cell TV was seen in prototype form at this year's International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January and uses the powerful chip for some heavy-duty graphics processing. Developed jointly by Toshiba, Sony and IBM, the Cell is already used in the PlayStation 3 games console and in Toshiba's prototype TV could handle real-time upscaling of standard-definition TV to high-def, and display multiple video streams simultaneously for quick navigation of many TV channels.

A related development -- and one that Toshiba also has at the heart of its digital products business growth -- is a laptop based on a Toshiba-developed chip called the SpursEngine.

The SpursEngine is a coprocessor -- that's a chip designed to sit alongside a main processor in a system and handle heavy jobs like real-time graphics processing and video manipulation. Inside the chip are four processor cores of the same type used in the Cell chip and a hardware codec for encoding and decoding high-definition MPEG2 and H.264 video streams. Toshiba said it will launch a laptop PC that features the SpursEngine sometime this financial year but no precise date was provided.

Toshiba, which is Japan's largest chip maker, is also planning to launch in June a new 1.8-inch solid-state disk (SSD) drive using multilevel NAND flash memory chips. Such chips can hold two bits of data in each cell, doubling the storage capacity within a given space. This will allow Toshiba to store up to 128G bytes in the first drives using multilevel memory.

Using the same chips the company also wants to make smaller SSDs. Right now the industry is largely standardized around the 1.8-inch size, which is roughly that of a PC Card, but Toshiba is eyeing PCI Express card-size drives at 64G bytes this year and then 128G bytes next year. Card-mounted drives half the size again are also on the roadmap for this year with even smaller mini cards due in 2009.

Toshiba recently announced full-year financial results for the year from April 2007 to March 2008. Net sales rose 8 percent to ¥7.7 trillion while net profit slipped 7 percent to ¥127 billion. Both the digital products and electronic devices sectors saw a 5 percent increase in sales but lower operating profits.

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