Mobile Power Challenges Are Real, but Solutions Abound

Carl Weinschenk

Last week, I blogged about the introduction of low power Atom processors by Intel. The new family -- which initially is aimed at mobile Internet devices (MIDs) but clearly is part of the company's overall road map -- is an important step in reducing power consumption on mobile devices.


The amount of juice a device consumes is a looming problem: The increasing demand for power threatens to outstrip the devices' ability to provide it. Luckily, there are multiple responses -- some quite innovative -- to the challenge. More efficient processors, such as Atom, is one. Another is better power management on devices. A third response is more careful operator use. Fourth-- and perhaps the most promising -- is more potent power sources.


More power can be provided by better batteries, nascent fuel cell technology or a combination of the two. This interesting CNET piece is based on an interview with Peng Lim, the president and CEO of MTI Micro. The story says that the company's methanol fuel cells are instantaneously rechargeable, though it doesn't compare the run time of a fuel cell to the type of lithium ion battery commonly used in mobile devices. The sense is, however, that it is greater and growing.


He says that during 2008, MTI will gear up manufacturing capacity and offer products next year. The story describes how the technology, which seems greener than batteries, works. Indications are that the initial products will be aimed at professional-level cameras and cell phones.


MTI, of course, is far from the only company researching power cells. Last week, Antig Technology received certification for its H2PowerChip Stack from Underwriters Laboratories. The company said it will unveil its line of method fuel cells at a trade show in Germany later this month and that it is working with companies who expect to release products based on the technology this year.


Indeed, the great interest in this market is clearly shown in this listing of companies that are expected to attend a conference focusing on small fuel cells for commercial and military applications. The promo says that more than 100 companies are set to attend the meeting, which is set for Atlanta from April 30 to May 2. There will be a pre-conference symposium on creating synergies between lithium ion batteries and fuel cells.


There isn't too much meat in this Drexel University press release that details research being done by Professor Yossef Eladb, but it is worth a look for two reasons. The first is that it offers an accessible description of how direct methanol fuel cells work. The idea is to mix fuel and air to create electricity, heat and water. The release also says that a fuel cell operating at 20 percent capacity doubles the power density of lithium-ion batteries. The fact is intriguing and worth noting. It would be helpful, however, if the release offered context such as the current state of the art in fuel cell efficiency -- is the 20 percent capacity the norm? -- and described the difficulties involved in improving that efficiency.


Adequately powering portable devices is a major challenge, simply because failure will have severe ramifications for the entire mobile sector. The good news -- and there seems to be plenty of it -- is that an army of researchers is attacking the problem from a number of directions. This suggests that adequate solutions will be found.

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