A New Power Generation?
A New Power Generation?
Modern consumer gadgetry is sold as much on its desirability as its technical ability. The days when a laptop, mobile phone or media player succeeded because of processing power, features or capacity are long gone. Instead customers want to hear about colour schemes, brand identity and pocketability. One consideration remains constant however, whether you’re interest is in pixel density and platform interoperability or free minutes and celebrity endorsement – just how long will the damn thing last before it needs a recharge?
Power consumption might seem mundane, but whatever your criteria for judging a gadget, it’s a major throttle on innovation and progress. Big clear bright screens, nippy high-capacity smart-drives and multi-megapixel video capture all eat up power, but big hulking power sources don’t fit into sexy form factors. Manufacturers and designers have squeezed incredible life out of lithium-ion batteries to date, but compromises have had to be made along the way and the result is, well, quite exciting toys with pretty good battery life. The ongoing quest for drop-dead gorgeous, ultra-slim, feature-packed shiny slices of technical wonderment will inevitably lead to a new generation of portable power sources.
If you read this week’s Prompt newsletter you’ll notice that MTI Micro is the latest vendor to claim it will be integrating methanol fuel cells into mobile phones, cameras and other gadgets commercially, this time as soon as 2009. But what exactly are fuel cells, why are they expected to revolutionise product development, and are we really going to see them in consumer gadgets anytime soon?
Surprisingly the first fuel cells were invented way back in 1839 by a Sir William Grove (unless you’re German, in which case Schonbein is your man), who understood electrolysis, realised that water could be split in this way into hydrogen and oxygen, and wondered if you could turn the process on its head and make electricity and water out of gas. It turned out you could, he had invented the gas voltaic battery, and had bought scientists around 150 years or so to make ‘em small and efficient enough to power electric cars and mobile phones.
Sadly there have been a few stumbling blocks between Sir William’s shed and our pockets that the humble battery has covered up for in the intervening years. Problems vary depending on the type of fuel cell (there are lots) and the intended application (again, lots, from substations to torches), but let’s concentrate on pocket-sized methanol fuel cells. The biggest obstacle has been the research and development time to get the designs to a consumer-friendly level. Then there’s the problem of passing on these costs to customers while remaining competitive with humble batteries, and convincing manufacturers and consumers to make the mental leap from plugging in their gadgets to a familiar power socket, to squeezing fuel into expensive, shiny new equipment. Finally there’s the small matter of travelling a security-obsessed world with fuel-laden devices in your pocket, plus numerous other little considerations that seem trifling to fuel cell developers but are alien to the rest of us.
But back to the good news – MTI says it’s ploughing ahead and we’ve no reason to disbelieve it. The company’s CTO says we’ll get twice as much life out of his fuel cells than any equivalent lithium battery and that a recharge cartridge can be squirted into one of its compatible SLR cameras in a second, rather than waiting three hours for a full battery charge. By-product water is recirculated and never comes in contact with any electronics, while CO2 emitted is negligible to the environment, comparable to say, breathing out a bit. MTI also points out that methanol is only flammable if you set light to it (like most other things) and as such is far safer than a spontaneously combusting laptop battery, for example.
So will fuel cell powered devices be in the High Street next year? Well, three pieces of news came to light this week that might bring that day a little closer.
Firstly, MTI has convinced Samsung to work with it to make its consumer device plans a reality. Secondly, as well as its fuel-cell embedded cameras, MTI has decided to put its efforts into launching a universal charger powered by fuel cells that can attach to a wide range of mobile phones or MP3 player via a USB cord and charge them up. And finally, in its 2008 Portable Fuel Cell Survey, growing niche publication Fuel Cell Today has revealed that the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) has ruled in favour of allowing fuel cell devices and a limited number of methanol recharging cartridges into commercial airline cabins.
FCT now claims: “The prospect of a portable product being launched on the wider public within the next two years is well within the bounds of possibility.” We’re not sure about 2009 – fuel-cells could make some very exciting gadgets possible very soon, but for now we’ll stay conservative, point you towards the latest news from the leading players and ten year market forecasts, and keep our eye out for any new developments.