A number of research groups at companies and in academic and government labs have developed components for fuel cells that could soon be ready to incorporate into products, although Holladay doesn’t expect to see them on the market for at least another two years. (See “Better Fuel Cells for Laptops.”) There are still issues to be resolved with the hydrogen fuel cells. For example, such fuel cells produce water as they make electricity, and finding a way to get rid of that water without affecting the surrounding electronics in a laptop is a challenge, he says. What’s more, the fuel cells are still expensive. If a fuel-cell system costs three or four times more than a battery, Holladay asks, why not just buy extra batteries for long trips?
And many experts believe that fuel cells will never appear widely in consumer electronics. They doubt that regulators, for instance, will allow passengers to bring flammable liquids on an airplane, even in small amounts and carefully packaged inside the system.
Still, advocates of the technology point to numerous practical applications. Emergency workers with powerful 20-watt radios need energy sources that can work for days or weeks on end without ready access to grid electricity. (See “Printing Fuel Cells.”) The military could also be a major customer, using the technology replace batteries.