Japanese technology companies are pumping hundreds of millions of dollars into R&D on fuel cells to power laptops, PDAs, and phones in an effort to keep up with the insatiable power demand of electronics said a research firm this week.
Fuel cell technology, which was developed by NASA during the opening rounds of the space program, creates electricity from chemical reactions between fuels -- such as hydrogen or methanol -- and an oxidant.
They've been touted as the power source for everything from future automobiles to in-home generators that take a house off the grid.
By 2012, said Atakan Ozbek, the director of energy research at ABI Research, between 10 and 15 percent of laptops sold worldwide will rely on micro fuel cells, not batteries, for their juice. 'Even though processor vendors like Intel and power management manufacturers such as Texas Instruments are giving us solutions and better chips for longer battery life,' said Ozbek, 'device makers are continually adding functionality that means more energy is needed. That trend is never going to change.'
Battery technology just isn't up to the chore, long-term. Instead, fuel cells may provide a way to extend power lifespan. 'With new applications, whether its 3G or Wi-Fi or DVD, we need more power,' said Ozbek. 'We need six to eight, or eight to ten hours of continuous power, something we just can't get from the current [rechargeable battery] technology.'
Prime candidates for longer-life power supplies in portable devices, he said, include mobile workers and the military.
Micro fuel cells as small as a disposable cigarette lighter could be the answer. Using an 80-20 mix of water and methanol, they promise to deliver enough power to keep the next several generations of laptops and PDAs running a long, long time.
Today's laptops, for instance, draw 10 to 15 watts of power, but future models will be even hungrier, needing 20 to 25 watts. Micro fuel cells focus on providing up to 100 watts of power.
Japanese firms such as Samsung, Toshiba, and Sony are among those investing in fuel cell technologies, and according to Ozbek, are in a better position to bring their work to light. 'On one level, these firms make chips. On another they make components. And they make complete products [such as laptops]. They know where they're going, and this gives them a competitive edge in the race,' said Ozbek.
Although his study looked far down the road, Ozbek said to expect small-sized trials of fuel cell-powered laptops as early as 2005. He projects that about 2,000 units will be put into play next year, used almost exclusively within the Japanese companies betting heavily on fuel cells.
The fuel cells themselves are disposable -- not rechargeable like today's lithium-ion batteries in laptops -- but that's not an insurmountable challenge, said Ozbek.
Distribution channels are already in place for such an item, and may take the form of agreements with major firms such as BIC and Gillette, which know how to sell disposable products. Users might balk at the idea of replacing, rather than recharging, but Ozbek pointed to the success of similar models, such as inkjet cartridges, as a harbinger.
But there are many hurdles which haven't yet been faced. 'Not everything is a bed of roses,' said Ozbek. He cited environmental concerns, the lack of standards, and the need to come up with regulations on shipping fuel cells similar to those now in place for batteries and disposable lighters. 'What's needed is a couple of million [micro fuel cells] out there. Once that happens manufacturers can increase capacity in a very short time,' said Ozbek.
Issue: 315 | May 2013
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