Fuel cell revolution

When Apple submitted plans for a hydrogen fuel cell battery to the US patents office in December it had the effect of immediately legitimising fuel cell technology as a likely power source for future gadgets.  But Apple’s not the first with the fuel cell idea. It turns out there are several companies with fuel cell products already in the market. In fact fuel cell batteries may soon be powering portable computers and gadgets on a wide scale giving them battery lives of up to two weeks.

Unlike standard batteries which act as energy reservoirs fuel cells are tiny power generating plants that turn hydrogen (or other chemicals such as methanol) into electricity and can deliver enough power to charge or power small devices for several days. You replace the spent fuel with refills.

The smallest and most elegant fuel cell battery is the MiniPak produced by Singapore-based Horizon Fuel Cell Technologies. The handheld device produces up to 2 W of continuous power to a standard USB port. The fuel cell contains a metallic sponge that absorbs hydrogen and turns it into a solid hydride. It then releases it back as hydrogen when needed.  

Another fuel cell the PowerTrekk USB charger which will go on sale later this year uses sodium silicide powder. Just add water and the powder converts it to hydrogen producing up to four litres of the gas per refill. Made by Swedish company myFC the PowerTrekk is expected to sell for $300 with each refill around $5.  

Fuel cells don’t have to be powered by hydrogen. Toshiba’s Dynario generates a chemical reaction between a methanol solution and oxygen doing away with the issues of storying hydrogen. The technology is already being used by the Japanese military. Toshiba reckons the fuel cell which looks like a transistor radio generates enough power to charge two phones. At the moment it isn’t cheap costing 30000 yen – about $350 – while the methanol refills are around $40.

There are still plenty of technical obstacles to be overcome to bring the technology down to smaller sizes but the dream of devices with battery lives longer than a few hours is now not impossible.