Beyond batteries: Long-lasting fuel cells are the future of mobile power

Unlimited, lightweight and cheap mobile power is on the horizon

1 2 Page 2
Page 2 of 2

Further out on the horizon, the technology will get really interesting for road warriors, with mobile equipment designed for and fully powered by fuel cells. "In three to five years," Collins explains, "equipment that runs solely on fuel cells will hit the market."

Besides improving technology, another factor that should spur adoption of fuel cells is the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Today, fuel cells and methanol are big no-nos on planes, but that will change in October, when the FAA will start allowing travelers to bring fuel cells on board airliners along with two refills of methanol.

"You may not be able to bring your nail clipper on the plane," quips MTI's Lim, "but a fuel cell will be OK. This will be a big spur to the commercialization of fuel cell technology."

Ultracell XX25
For now, external fuel cells like this Ultracell XX25 will power notebooks; eventually, they'll be built-in.

Because fuel cells will soon be able to go anywhere you go, sales are forecast to grow quickly. Frost & Sullivan's Bradford thinks that by 2012, 80 million micro fuel cells will be sold to power notebooks, cell phones, media players and other portable devices. That's up from 1 million fuel cells shipped in 2007 and a projected 25 million fuel cells in 2010.

On the downside

While fuel cells are about ready to go, a few shortcomings remain.

"Fuel cells are great for providing constant power," adds MTI's Lim. "But they can't handle the peak power demand that's required by most electronic devices."

For example, when a cell phone starts playing a streaming video, its power draw can rise from 2 watts to 5 watts in less than a second, overwhelming a fuel cell's output. As a result, the first generation of practical fuel cells will be hybrid designs that have a small lithium bridge battery to provide extra power for such situations.

When the bridge battery is out of juice, it will be recharged by the fuel cell, a process that will take time. During that time, performance of the device could be degraded.

One long-term solution to this problem is replacing the add-on battery with a capacitor that stores enough power to augment the fuel cell. In the shorter term, Sony Corp. recently showed a prototype hybrid fuel cell with a small lithium-ion battery. The fuel cell delivers a steady 3 watts of power, which is what a typical smart phone requires, with the battery filling in on an as-needed basis.

The package measures 1.2 by 2 in., or about the size of a cell-phone battery. It powered a handset displaying digital broadcast TV for 14 hours nonstop. Its fuel: one-third of an ounce of methanol.

Another problem, at least in the short term, is price: Fuel cells will cost more than traditional batteries at first. "They'll be more expensive compared to lithium batteries, but we expect that to change quickly," says MTI's Lim.

fuel cell membrane
The secret to a fuel cell's efficiency is its membrane. (Courtesy of MIT)

One reason prices are expected to drop is that fuel cells have require fewer parts than batteries, and those parts are easier to manufacture. And, of course, technology prices usually decrease as adoption increases. Lithium batteries, which first started being widely used about 13 years ago, are a perfect example of this trend.

"Back then, lithium batteries cost $30 per cell," recalls Toshiba's Collins. A typical notebook battery uses between three and nine cells. "Today, they're about $3 a cell. We expect this cost curve to apply to fuel cells and expect products that will be competitively priced in the consumer electronics marketplace. The bottom line is that the time for fuel cells has arrived."

A glimpse of the (near) future

Fast-forward just a few years to a business traveler on her way to Asia with a notebook full of work to do. Before getting on the plane, she stops at an airport convenience store to buy two methanol refill cartridges for her notebook and stashes them in her bag.

On the 15-hour flight, she puts the finishing touches on her presentation, clears out a backlog of e-mails and writes a memo about a new product. Before settling down to watch a DVD or two, she gets a warning that her notebook's fuel cell is running low on fuel. After replacing its methanol tank with a fresh one, she enjoys a movie marathon for the rest of the flight without interruption. Such prolonged use of a laptop simply isn't possible today.

Says Frost & Sullivan's Bradford: "In 10 years, we'll probably look back and wonder how we put up with lithium batteries."

Brian Nadel is a freelance writer based near New York and is the former editor in chief of Mobile Computing & Communications magazine. A 25-year veteran of technology journalism, his work has appeared in Popular Science, PC Magazine and Fortune.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

1 2 Page 2
Page 2 of 2
Bing’s AI chatbot came to work for me. I had to fire it.
Shop Tech Products at Amazon