Fuel Cells: Laptop Power in a Bottle

Fuel Cells: Laptop Power in a Bottle

Run out of juice in one of your digital gadgets? Just fill 'er up!


Has this ever happened to you? You're on a 16-hour flight from San Francisco to Istanbul, but in the middle of polishing the Keynote presentation that'll convince Prime Minister Erdogan to award your company that lucrative apricot contract, your MacBook Pro's battery dies - and you haven't a spare. Will you now kill eight hours reading the SkyMall catalog, or will you merely pull out a (3 ounces or smaller) bottle of PowerJuiceâ„¢, give your 'Book's battery a squirt, and keep on working? For the sake of your apricot empire, let's hope it's the latter scenario.


In a year or two, it may be.


For years, small, efficient fuel cells have been the holy grail of laptop manufacturers. Powered by a few squirts of a variety of liquids, fuel cells have the advantage over batteries of not simply storing electrical power, but actually generating it through the interaction of a hydrogen-rich fluid and a permanent internal reactant. Bonus: Most fuel cell designs promise exceptionally long life - up to 20 hours, for example, in laptop-battery-size implementations.


Although fuel cell designs have been demonstrated to great success in the lab, the road to production of laptop-capable cells has proven to be the Boulevard of Broken Dreams. NEC originally planned to have such fuel cells on the market by 2004; when that deadline passed, they pushed it out to "around 2007." MTI Micro Fuel Cells made a lot of noise a few years back about impending products, but now talks about a commercial release in 2009 at the earliest. Although one major manufacturer, Neah Power Systems, said in 2003 that products would start shipping in 2005, it has now moved that target out to 2009. Late last year, one leading researcher said that consumer-level fuel cells would take "as many as three to five years."


The technical challenges are many and varied, but two recent breakthroughs show promise. One problem has been the limited surface area of the membrane with which the power fluid reacts to create electricity. Neah Power Systems claims to have leapfrogged this roadblock with a thick but porous membrane that provides 50 to 100 times the reactive area in the same form factor. And then there's the power fluid itself. Most manufacturers have focused on methanol, but researchers at the University of Arizona have created a souped-up borohydride solution that puts methanol to shame in terms of its hydrogen-carrying capacity.


So don't give up hope for that endlessly refillable laptop fuel cell just yet. With any luck at all, you soon won't be able to use the excuse, "But my laptop battery died!"


On second thought, maybe that's not such a good thing.




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Amazing technology!
It is something like Earth4energy (system that can generate electricity for your home) but for your laptop



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I don't know about laptops, but the security guards at the Royal British Columbia Museum here in BC use flashlights powered by fuel cells. Just the small matter of pumping out a few more volts to run a laptop.



I was thinking the exact same thing as the first poster. The concept is good but you'd still be screwed on a long flight.



I can see it now. Profits galore for the selling of the fuel mirroring the success of the inkjet companies and their printer cartridges.



Do you really think the FAA and/or TSA will allow fuel cell powered electronics on commercial flights? I can't even bring enough mouthwash in my carry-on for a good rinsing.


Susie Ochs

You can bring liquids onto the plane now. They just have to be in three-ounce containers or smaller, and you have to fit all the containers in a one-quart Ziploc-type bag, and then send the bag through security in one of those bins (not in your carry-on), and jump through a couple of flaming hoops while patting your head, rubbing your tummy, and singing Kum-Ba-Yah in Ancient Greek. But don't let that stop you from in-flight mouthwashing!

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