Fuel-cell Powered PDAs? They’re Coming

Alternatives to batteries are coming

This week is National Energy Education Week, and I would like to celebrate by highlighting some fascinating, and potentially incredibly useful, research being done on ways to use hydrogen fuel cells for mobile electronic devices. Electronics companies including Toshiba, Intel, Motorola, and 3M have been investing in research to replace batteries with fuel cells, and some of them are actually nearing commercialization.

Why power electronic devices like cellphones, laptops, PDAs, and video cameras with hydrogen fuel cells? Traditional lithium ion batteries are becoming increasingly exasperating; they are heavy, you have to power down to change batteries in most cases, and as the energy intensity of our electronic demands increases, batteries just don’t last long enough to provide practical power. Batteries have not innovated at the same rate as microprocessors, memory, and other electronic technologies, which means that they have not become more productive and have not gotten smaller and smaller.

Research into small fuel cells, called microcells, indicates that they could do what batteries have not. Toshiba is a pioneer in this research, and they released a microcell prototype at a trade show in Germany last week. The prototype currently uses methanol as the source of the hydrogen, and can power a laptop for five hours with one cartridge of fuel. The cell is practical for refreshing on the fly – as the cartridge drains, the user can insert another cartridge without turning off the computer. It is still larger than comparable lithium ion batteries, but Toshiba foresees the cells getting smaller through ongoing research over the next year. Toshiba plans to release the microcells for commercial sale by next year.

An article in Sunday’s New York Times delves into these research efforts, noting in particular the role of consumer preferences in shaping this research initiative:

But the biggest reason the smaller cells are expected to become popular sooner is their appeal as a convenience – something that consumers have shown a willingness to pay for – and not as an answer to energy and environmental problems.

Fuel cells that last far longer than do rechargeable batteries would free laptop computer users and television camera crews, for example, from the need to lug heavy and expensive backup battery packs.

The article also contains some good background information on issues with hydrogen fuel cells, as does an article from early March in Wireless News Factor.

The use of methanol instead of some other hydrocarbon to generate the hydrogen also contributes to the practicality of the cells, because methanol can be stored and transported at very high concentration, which means a lot of power in a little space relative to ethanol or pure hydrogen. This feature contributes to what researchers hope will be another manifestation of Moore’s Law – that microcells will double in power and halve in size over the next 18 months.

Lots of companies are working hard to make that happen. Large electronic firms like Toshiba, Intel, Motorola, Samsung, and Sony are all working on fuel cells for mobile electronics. But the real innovators are smaller outfits that have traditionally done more scientific instrument research, such as Manhattan Scientific. This pattern of research has created substantial value, and many new and unforeseen products, in mobile electronics. Historically, this pattern has shown up in everything from mass-market ceramics to steel. In this pattern many people work independently toward a shared goal, but want two very important things: to get there first and be the one that becomes the established standard. Thus their profit motive (where profit can include not just financial remuneration, but also status and the satisfaction of being the one who solved it first, or best) creates new and unforeseen products and opportunities to do things that we never imagined before.

Some people characterize this pattern as wasteful, with all of that replication of research effort. I strongly disagree. If you try to channel these efforts and guide research with an objective of minimizing duplication, you are very likely to fail, because the duplication is never perfect – even if several people are working toward the same goal, such as smaller methanol fuel cells, the variations in their procedures, their materials, their ways of approaching the problem, and just sheer luck will all lead them down different paths. It’s that human variation that maximizes the potential benefit from research. All of that seeming duplication also does something incredibly valuable: it maximizes the probability that the researchers will find dead ends and eliminate them from further exploration at that time, in that application.

The combination of a perceived benefit from providing consumers with an alternative to batteries and the striving drive of human creativity to solve these technological problems are combining to create this new opportunity. Plus it doesn’t hurt that fuel cells can be a cleaner fuel source than batteries, depending on the fuel you use and how you produce the chemical reaction in the fuel cell. And don’t forget that microcell research could inform the research on hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, and make them cheaper, more energy efficient, and therefore more potentially commercial.

Lynne Kiesling is director of economic policy at Reason Foundation and senior lecturer in economics at Northwestern University.