Fuel cells - the way forward for charging mobile devices?
By Renate Grimming Jan 2, 2011, 12:56 GMT
Berlin - Portable communication devices are extremely popular but mobile technology has its limits as batteries are quickly exhausted. Scientists have spent years trying to develop alternatives to lithium ion batteries with much hope being placed on fuel cells.
After many setbacks in development a small firm from Silicon Valley is showing that fuel cells may indeed be the way forward.
In contrast to conventional lithium ion batteries, fuel cells cannot store a charge, but they do offer many other advantages. Fuel cells are easier and cheaper to make and you don't need a wall outlet to fill them up. Fuel cells use gases such as methanol or hydrogen to source their power and they are also a lot more environmentally friendly than normal mobile batteries.
Fuel cells generate electricity in a chemical reaction where hydrogen or methanol are combined with oxygen. Electrical energy is released during the process which can be used to power a device.
Along with electronics companies such as Toshiba and Samsung, Germany's Fraunhofer Institute is trying to develop new types of fuel cells that could make the technology more suited to portable consumer products. But after many ambitious research projects, the euphoria has cooled somewhat, at least when it comes to notebook makers.
Only a few years ago it appeared a major breakthrough was on the horizon. In 2007 Samsung created a prototype notebook powered by a methanol-fueled cell. The makers said it could power the notebook for up to a month. But the technology never made it into the shops and Samsung is not prepared to say if it has managed to develop the prototype further.
Many unsolved problems and technical issues have prevented fuel cell-powered mobile devices from launching on the consumer market. 'Electronics manufacturers have become more careful in their announcements,' says Ulf Groos from the Fraunhofer Institute. Failure to live up to expectations has happened too frequently but no-one has given up on fuel cells because they offer so many advantages compared to batteries.
One problem that has yet to be solved is the heat generated by fuel cells. Reducing fuel cell size is also an issue, according to Groos. 'We have not yet managed to integrate them into the devices.' Fuel cells are still too large to fit into small mobile devices.
A few years ago Toshiba presented a fuel cell which was as big as the notebook it powered. Joerg Wirtgen, an editor with German computer magazine c't, does not believe a major breakthrough will happen any time soon. 'It will probably take at least another five years before we have products that are fit for the market.'
In the meantime Wirtgen thinks lithium ion batteries, which can fit into very flat notebooks such as Apple's Macbook Air, will continue to hold their own. Lithium ion batteries are quite expensive to make but they are much better at being shaped to fit devices than conventional batteries.
Researchers are working on alternatives to integrated batteries that would lead to external fuel cell charging stations. A year ago Toshiba presented a mobile methanol fuel cell charger that can recharge a notebook over a USB cable. The device is called the Dynario and about 3,000 were put on the market as part of a test run but nothing has been heard since.
Groos believes that fuel cells will have limited uses if developers fail to integrate them into mobile devices. Experts think there will be a very small market for external fuel cell chargers. 'External solutions are better suited to arctic-like expeditions where you spend weeks away from a power socket,' says Wirtgen.
But in mid-November a small company from California reinvigorated the debate around fuel cells when Lilliputian Systems announced that it will launch its first products. The start-up company says it has developed a technology based on silicon and which uses a recyclable fuel cell cartridge.
Compared to lithium ion batteries the new environmentally-friendly fuel cell will supply between five and 10 times more power, according to Lilliputian Systems. The new fuel cell will be suitable both as an external charger as well as an integrated power supply for a notebook, according to its designers.