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Martin LaMonica

A View from Martin LaMonica

A Fuel Cell That Runs on Fire

Berkeley Labs spin-off Points Source Power develops fuel-cell charger for Kenya powered by cookstove fires.

  • April 29, 2013

In trying to create a power source for off-grid villagers in Kenya, entrepreneur and scientist Craig Jacobson has picked a seemingly improbable technology–a fuel cell.

The Voto uses a rugged and inexpensive fuel cell to charge a battery, cell phone, or power a light. Credit: Point Source Power.

Fuel cells have been in use for decades, but they are generally more expensive than grid power, even in the developed world. And despite many attempts, portable fuel cells have yet to catch on. (See, Lilliputian Fuel Cell Gadget Charger Ready to Grow Up.) How then could fuel cell technology work in place where energy consumers are very sensitive to price?

The answer is to make an extremely rugged device and use the existing fuel infrastructure for cookstoves, says Jacobson, the CEO of startup Point Source Power. Its product is the Voto, a small fuel cell that can charge batteries, LED light, or cell phone when placed in a cooking stove. It can run on any biomass, although charcoal provides the heat needed to produce electricity. The company plans to distribute the five-watt Voto in Kenya in the second half of this year and sell it as a home charger for cell phones and replacement for kerosene used for lighting.

Solid-oxide fuel cells use a ceramic electrolyte and catalyst to convert a fuel and oxygen from air into electricity. Seeking a cheaper alternative, Jacobson and co-founder licensed technology from Berkeley National Laboratory that replaces most of the expensive and brittle ceramics used in conventional fuel cells. Instead, the charger has fuel cell “cards,” small flat plates that fit into a box that goes into the fire. Carbon monoxide from the fire acts as a fuel that combines with oxygen ions through the zirconia-based metal cards to produce electricity, carbon dioxide, and steam, , Jacobson says. 

Much of the company’s intellectual property is in a fabrication technique that allows it to make the cards so that very little ceramic material is used, Jacobson says. Using off-the-shelf equipment, the company sinters, or bonds, a thin layer of ceramic onto the metal cards. The device also uses a low-cost catalyst. “It’s all about the cost and whether it can be cheap enough and rugged enough,” he says.

To produce electricity, the fuel cell needs to be at 700 or 800 degrees Celsius. With those high temperatures and the relatively dirty fuels, the replaceable cards will last three or four months. But the company expects to price the device so that people will save money on reduced kerosene within a few months. There’s also the convenience of charging a phone at home rather than at charging stores.  

Point Source Power, which raised seed funding from venture capital firm Khosla Ventures and is seeking an additional $2 million, is one of many social entrepreneurs designing products for developing countries. Another is Fenix International, which sells a solar panel and lead-acid battery in Rwanda and to people in the U.S. and Canada. (See, Solar Charger Made for Africa Coming to the U.S.)

A number of companies have failed trying to sell small fuel cells as portable chargers for phones and other electronics. Jacobson says Point Source Power’s technology is substantially cheaper and won’t take lots of capital to start producing. Unlike portable chargers in the developed world, fuel cell chargers in Kenya replace a product people already buy, he adds. “People spend billions of dollars every year on kerosene lighting. They buy it every day and there really aren’t good alternatives,” he says. The company later intends to sell its charger for off-grid charging in the U.S., too. 

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