Two Fuel Cell Breakthroughs as Device Commercialization Nears

Carl Weinschenk

Lack of enough power to drive feature-rich smartphones, laptops and other devices for a significant time period is the 800 Watt gorilla in the room when it comes to the future of mobility. However, two advances announced in July and vendor optimism suggest that the challenges may have been met.


Early reports on a breakthrough made by Spanish researchers on fuel cells don't mention potential applications, but it is safe to assume that smartphones, laptops, PDAs and other handheld devices will get in on the fun at some point.


The news is worthy of note now because of the magnitude of the improvement. This ZDNet piece gets technical quickly, but the first paragraph sums up the considerable upside of the new "super-lattice material." The new material, the post says:

...improves ionic conductivity near room temperature by a factor of almost 100 million.

You don't need a degree from MIT to understand that 100 million is a big number and accomplishing such a feat at about room temperature also is important. The story names the four Spanish groups that did the research and provides other details.


This Daily Kos diary describes how fuel cells work. The second breakthrough involves the material used as a catalyst. The writer says that a traditional approach is to use platinum which, besides being expensive, is easily contaminated. The breakthrough is the development at Monash University in Austria of a material, PEDOT, that offers many of the advantages of platinum without those drawbacks. Many details, such as what types of fuel cells the material can be used in, are still up in the air. PEDOT ran, the diary says, for 1,500 hours without degradation.


This is more mundane -- and, thankfully, easier to understand -- news from NeoSolar and MTI's Mobion technology. reported last month that NeoStar, which already markets an ultramobile PC (UMPC) in Korea, is planning to integrate MTI's direct methanol fuel cell (DMFC) technology. MTI, the story says, has agreements in place with Samsung and an unnamed Japanese camera maker. The company has demonstrated cell phone and digital cameras with DMFCs.


While much of the attention during the past few months has understandably been on fuel cells as an answer to rising fuel prices for automotive uses, the writer of this well-drawn overview of the hydrogen fuel cell sector says that the more immediate use will be in portable electronics. The economics work better for the smaller devices, the distribution chain is better delineated, and the shorter time users hold onto electronics versus automobiles creates a more dynamic marketplace. The writer identifies Polyfuel as a particularly aggressive company in creating portable electronics fuel cells.


We finally are on the verge of the fuel cell era, according to this upbeat story from Computerworld. The piece says that several manufacturers are pointing to 2009 as the dawn of mass commercialization. At first, the story says, the devices will be bigger than batteries and stick out of devices. The engineering is in place to eliminate the size differential. Indeed, plans from several manufacturers are in development to sell devices with traditional batteries and optional fuel cells that occupy the same space on the device.

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