Will your next smartphone be powered by hydrogen? Fuel cell tech goes mobile

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Is it too soon to say that mobile power tech is finally hitting a renaissance? After years where power concerns felt like they took a back seat to flashier specs, we’ve finally got a market where manufacturers are really investing in systems that make sure our phones aren’t just fast, beautiful, and fun to use, but also won’t leave us high and dry when they run out of juice at an inopportune time. For some OEMs, that means blessing their hardware with support for one of many quick-charge solutions, while others bank on wireless charging – and when we’re really lucky, we get both.

No matter how that power gets to our phones, we’re still dealing with batteries to store it, and while today’s batteries are leaps and bounds ahead of what mobile devices used just a few years back, they still suffer from some big limitations. Sure, you can carry around a power pack that offers a huge capacity, but bigger batteries mean added weight, to say nothing of lengthier charge times. And even once charged, leave that battery sitting around unused for too long, and you might find it dead when you really need it.

That doesn’t necessarily have to be the case, however, at least if we’re willing to move beyond conventional batteries for power storage. This week at CES, we visited with Intelligent Energy to learn a little about fuel cell tech, and check out the potential it has for the mobile market.

fuell-cell-iphone-2

Just what is a fuel cell? Like batteries, fuel cells generate power by means of a chemical reaction, but unlike a self-contained rechargeable battery that can be used over and over, a fuel cell needs fresh fuel to function. For the Intelligent Energy cells we looked at, that means hydrogen, stored in a recyclable, lightweight module. The hydrogen reacts with oxygen in the atmosphere to generate power, producing heat and water vapor as its only by-products.

Pop a fuel cell cartridge in a compatible device, and you’ve got a lot of power at your fingertips, thanks to the incredible energy density the tech offers. For instance, a phone-sized fuel cell solution might be 8mm thick and weigh just 40 grams, yet have capacity equivalent to a 17,500mAh battery pack. A comparable lithium-ion battery would come in closer to 300 grams, if not more.

fuell-cell-iphoneSounds pretty promising, right? So what’s the rub? Well for one, right now we don’t have phones that are designed to directly run off fuel cell power. The currently available units are more like external USB power packs, built to charge existing phones. The next step from there is working with accessory makers to build products that look a lot like cases with built-in extended batteries – only this time, that extra juice comes from a fuel cell. Further down the line, Intelligent Energy would love to get manufacturers building phones with completely integrated fuel-cell solutions, but that could still be several years off.

There’s also the issue of needing to acquire more fuel, and with the modular system Intelligent Energy has come up with, maybe the easiest comparison to make is with something like a non-rechargeable alkaline battery; you buy some at the local convenience store, you use them as needed, and when they’re consumed, you discard them (at least fuel cells can be recycled and refilled, helping to cut down on the environmental impact).

That consumable nature threatens to the limit the appeal of a pure-fuel-cell mobile device, but a hybrid model could easily help compensate for that shortcoming; maybe you’d charge your phone overnight and run off its lithium-ion battery throughout the day, and on days of really heavy usage, or when you don’t have the opportunity to get near a charger, you could tap into the fuel cell to keep things running.

Other potential use cases include offering power to backpackers or anyone else operating off the grid, like aid workers might during disaster response, where reliable access to wired power can be difficult to come by.

Fuel cells needn’t be limited to phones, either, and Intelligent Energy has worked on designs that can be engineered into tablets and laptops – even drones. While older fuel cells had a tendency to be bulky (like the kind you see all the way up top), new planar layouts allow them to be built in form factors that are nearly indistinguishable from today’s flat batteries. There’s even the possibility of creating curved cells, giving hope to those of you who wish the industry’s brief dalliance with curved handsets would make a return.

While fuel cells on mobile devices won’t be for everyone, for those of you who already juggle multiple USB power packs, or find yourself never able to locate an outlet when you need one (so, pretty much all of us here at CES), there’s a lot to like, even with the downsides inherent to working with consumable fuel. We’re just happy to know that there’s an alternative to batteries that’s not just something way out over the horizon, but already here in limited form. And if that also happens to press rechargeable-battery makers to work that much faster to improve their own technologies, so much the better.

fuel-cell-casePocketnow’s CES 2016 coverage is made possible by dbrand, the boss of vinyl skins for smartphones, tablets, wearables and more. For the most precise fit on earth, visit http://dbrand.com.

Source: Intelligent Energy

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About The Author
Stephen Schenck
Stephen has been writing about electronics since 2008, which only serves to frustrate him that he waited so long to combine his love of gadgets and his degree in writing. In his spare time, he collects console and arcade game hardware, is a motorcycle enthusiast, and enjoys trapping blue crabs. Stephen's first mobile device was a 624 MHz Dell Axim X30, which he's convinced is still a viable platform. Stephen longs for a market where phones are sold independently of service, and bandwidth is cheap and plentiful; he's not holding his breath. In the meantime, he devours smartphone news and tries to sort out the juicy bitsRead more about Stephen Schenck!