Imagine chatting on your cell phone for months at a time without recharging it. Or taking a laptop on a weeklong business trip without a battery or power cord. That’s the goal of scientists around the world working to perfect tiny fuel cells using microtechnology engineering.
While broad adoption of fuel cells for cars and buildings is still at least a decade away, energy experts expect fuel cells for consumer electronics to become a reality as soon as this year. Prototypes for fuel cell-powered PDAs and handsets already exist, and more can be expected in the coming year. “The first mass consumer applications are going to be in the portable area because batteries can’t quite cut it anymore,” says Peter Bance, CEO of CMR Fuel Cells in Cambridge, England.
Fuel cells have long been the great hope of alternative power advocates, who envision them running everything from buildings to cars, using hydrogen instead of fossil fuels. The concept is straightforward: Fuel cells work by converting chemical energy into electrical energy and heat. Unlike batteries, fuel cells are powered by fuel?usually some form of hydrogen?and need to be refueled rather than recharged. So far, however, they have been too large and too expensive to gain mass appeal. For example, installing a fuel cell generator costs five to 10 times more than a natural gas generator, says Steve Taub, director of distributed energy global gas and power at Cambridge Energy Research Associates in Cambridge, Mass.
While researchers work to reduce the size of fuel cells, the race for consumer applications is on. A researcher at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, Calif., has made a fuel cell designed to power consumer electronics using replaceable fuel cartridges filled with methanol. Each fuel cell cartridge would last two to three times as long as a lithium battery lasts on a single charge. Jeff Morse, a researcher in the lab’s center for microtechnology, adds that they still need to work on some “materials issues,” such as thermal insulation for the fuel cells. But once those challenges are mastered, he says, next generation cell phones and hybrid personal devices could take off.