Since lithium ion batteries have about hit capacity for the length of time they can power portable computing devices, interest is rising in another technology that could increase battery power tenfold.
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Neah Power Systems Inc., in Bothell, Washington, is setting the stage for fuel cell technology as the next way to power electronic devices.
A fuel cell is a device that converts hydrogen and oxygen into electricity and heat. It resembles a perpetually recharging battery, and would actually slide into a standard-size battery to recharge it.
Because the rechargeable element is a small cartridge, users could ditch their extra battery units and AC adapters and instead carry cartridges. Although fuel cell batteries may differ among devices, the cartridges should be interchangeable — and, perhaps someday, available at airport shops next to film and tape cassettes.
It’s not clear yet how fuel cells will be used in notebooks or other portable electronic devices, but the technology is drawing interest because of its longevity. The cells could either lengthen the time a digital device can run, or run more powerful devices than batteries can now support, say Neah Power executives.
“Today’s notebook PC manufacturers are leaving out a lot of functions due to power restrictions,” says Gregg Makuch, Neah’s director of product marketing. “Faster processors, read/write DVD drives, and other components are driving a need for more power, and Wi-Fi technology is driving people toward a ‘power persistent’ computer that you can take anywhere and stays on all the time.”
Adds Neah Power founder and chief technology officer Leroy Ohlson, “we are going to see a lot of cool technologies with all the features that couldn’t be supported by today’s batteries. So today, it is the end of the lithium ion battery and the dawn of the fuel cell.”
Although the cartridges will have to be inexpensive in order for the products to catch on, Makuch declines to speculate about their potential cost, saying only that the price must be competitive. “Although if it meets needs better than existing legacy systems, people will be willing to pay a premium,” he adds.
While battery technology improves, the hardware a fuel cell powers also increases its energy requirements. Today’s notebooks could run as long as 14 hours using fuel cell technology, Ohlson says — although some systems may run for only a few hours on a single charge.
Neah Power’s technology uses methanol, which has several advantages as a fuel, according to Makuch. It’s powerful, inexpensive and environmentally friendly. While the spent fuel cartridges will likely be disposable, they are less harmful to the environment than current technologies, he adds.
Still, the first fuel cell-driven PCs are at least three years from market, the Neah Power executives expect. The company promises to supply details about how its technology works and reveal details about its own business plan in early 2003 (the company, formed in 2000, is venture-funded).
Fuel cell technology is being explored by others, as well. In August, MTI MicroFuelCells Inc. showed a prototype of its methanol fuel cell, which it expects to release in 2004 for cell phones and handheld devices. Casio is developing a fuel cell unit for use with its notebooks and other mobile devices, and also hopes to release it by 2004. Motorola is also reportedly exploring the potential of this technology.
Neah expects some vertical market applications may appear by the end of 2004, but doesn’t expect consumer products until 2005 or 2006. Obviously, notebooks that run on power cells won’t appear until the power cells are available — so devices and components will have to ship at the same time.
In the meantime, Neah’s plan is to strike agreements with equipment manufacturers to configure battery units for new machines. The batteries would be about the same size as now, but may be built in as a permanent part of the computing device — notebook, PDA or other electronic unit. They will probably not be backward compatible.
But since consumers are on a perpetual quest for increased power, it is possible that fuel cells will end up driving more sophisticated laptops for the same amount of time as they can operate today, rather than radically extending operational times, the Neah Power executives observe.