In a Los Alamos, NM, industrial park not far from the laboratory birthplace of the atomic bomb, Robert Hockaday sits in the cluttered lab of his startup company Manhattan Scientifics, holding a business-card-sized patch of clear plastic. Closer inspection shows a circuit-board-like pattern of black platinum and ruthenium printed on either side. The contraption is the innards of a five-centimeter-by-13-centimeter power plant that generates its own electricity using methanol as fuel. It may not look like much at first glance, but it’s one member of a new class of tiny power packs that is ready to explode onto the market-and that just might annihilate one of the world’s most ubiquitous technologies, the battery.
These miniature power plants, called micro fuel cells, promise a huge power boost for portable electronics ranging from cell phones to laptop computers to future generations of power-hungry, Web-enabled handheld devices. Today’s best lithium-ion cell-phone batteries provide an average of only four hours of talk time; micro fuel cells could provide up to 20 hours of talk time. And after that, instead of plugging in the cell phone overnight, or swapping batteries, you’d just snap in a new methanol cartridge.
Fuel cells are, of course, already bursting onto the market in other forms-and in far bigger sizes. Buses powered by fuel cells are making their first appearances, and cars are next (see “Fill ‘er Up with Hydrogen,” TR November/December 2000). Fuel cells that provide backup power for homes and offices are becoming available, too (see “Power to the People,” TR May 2001). Electrolux has even prototyped a cordless fuel-cell vacuum cleaner. Among other advantages, fuel cells use readily available sources of energy-namely, hydrogen or methanol-and produce only water, carbon dioxide and heat as waste products.
Now, industry is gearing up to make fuel cells small enough for consumer electronics. Building practical fuel cells this small-devices that produce one-tenth of a watt to 50 watts-presents huge engineering and materials challenges, but the market opportunity is enormous. “Portable fuel cells have the real potential of being profitable in a shorter time span than either stationary or automotive fuel-cell applications,” says Atakan Ozbek, vice president for energy research at Allied Business Intelligence, a technology research firm in Oyster Bay, NY. “In five years this could be potentially a billion-dollar-a-year market. This industry is going to kick.”
Not surprisingly, a race to commercialize the technology is in full swing and includes everyone from Motorola and Korean electronics giant Samsung to startup companies like Hockaday’s. The competitors are betting on different designs-and even slightly different chemistries-but they share a common goal: taking a bite out of the $6 billion world market for rechargeable batteries.
The first successful application is likely to be methanol fuel cells that produce approximately one-tenth of a watt and can recharge conventional batteries, liberating consumers from the dashboard lighter or the wall socket. Next will be fuel cells small enough to actually fit in the battery compartments of existing phones and yet powerful enough-one watt for cell phones, 50 watts for laptop computers-to be used for direct power.
Even farther on the horizon, microchips will be directly powered by built-in fuel cells. These fuel cells will provide a boon to miniaturization by removing the need for separate power sources. They’ll be custom designed to provide precise power needs. And production costs should drop when both chip and power source are fabricated as one unit. Self-powered chips, in turn, could enable a future generation of self-sufficient gadgets, like tiny networked sensors that can operate in remote areas, detecting pollutants, biowarfare toxins or anything else that needs detecting, and sending out the data for months.