Fuel cells for consumer electronics are one of those technologies that always seem poised for mainstream adoption but never quite make it. A New York-based chemicals company says that will finally change in 2012 with the release of a portable fuel cell charger that can power up cellphones and other mobile devices. Two recently published patent applications also indicate that Apple is investigating similar technology for its portable computing devices. That could prompt other gadget makers to adopt fuel cell charging.
The soon-to-be-released portable charger, called POWERTREKK, is slated to debut at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in January and go on sale in Europe in early 2012 and in the U.S. in the spring. Prices have not yet been determined but Michael Lefenfeld, Chief Executive of SiGNa Chemistry, which designed the cartridges in POWERTREKK’s fuel cells, says the fuel cells will cost less than a 4-pack of AA batteries. (POWERTREKK is manufactured and distributed by a Swedish company called myFC.)
POWERTREKK is a hybridized fuel cell system, meaning it recharges gadgets’ existing batteries rather than replaces them. It consists of a 5 watt-hour battery cartridge and replaceable 3-5 watt fuel packs, each of which should produce enough energy to charge an iPhone at least once. Lefenfeld says POWERTREKK can also charge other kinds of cellphones, digital cameras, GPS devices and some tablets. It connects to the gadgets via USB or mini-USB connectors.
This type of charger has been years in the making. Companies including Motorola and Duracell spent millions researching fuel cells for gadgets before shuttering their research initiatives, says Lefenfeld. Other companies also pursued the technology only to give up in the mid to late 2000s, he says. POWERTREKK itself took nearly two years to develop; SiGNa has been working with myFC on the product since early 2010.
Fuel cells have been successfully applied to machines like indoor forklifts, where they replace propane and gasoline. But shrinking fuel cells to be truly portable was challenging since hydrogen gas is particularly tricky to store. “The chemical solutions in the past all stored hydrogen,” explains Lefenfeld. “You’d need a thick, steel, pressurized container to store it.”
SiGNa’s solution is to use sodium silicide, which doesn’t store hydrogen but reacts with any kind of water (salt, sea, even polluted water) to create hydrogen gas. The hydrogen is fed into a fuel cell to produce electricity that can be transmitted to gadgets through cords. “Add water, you get hydrogen; turn off [the water], you get nothing,” says Lefenfeld.
The need for a fuel cell makes the system bulkier than a regular, battery-powered external charger. Lefenfeld says consumers may opt for fuel cell chargers, however, because they are lighter than battery-operated chargers, don’t discharge power or degrade over time and work quickly. (An iPhone should charge in an hour or hour and a half using POWERTREKK.) SiGNa also removed another longtime fuel cell hurdle by getting its setup approved by the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC), which sets standards for electrical and electronic technology. That will enable users to bring the POWERTREKK onto planes.
As its name indicates, POWERTREKK is primarily targeting outdoor enthusiasts — hikers and campers who need a lightweight backup charger to power their gadgets off the grid. SiGNa sees a lot more applications for the technology, though. It hopes business travelers, emergency/disaster relief workers and the military will adopt fuel cell chargers. To increase the technology’s appeal, SiGNa is developing higher-capacity, portable fuel cells as well as solutions suited for outdoor power equipment like lawn mowers and leaf blowers. Lefenfeld says SiGNa will announce additional partnerships in the spring and early summer of 2012.
Eventually, SiGNa would like to see its fuel cell technology embedded directly into devices. Lefenfeld says that will take time, in part because gadget makers grew skeptical of fuel cells after earlier hype failed to produce viable commercial products. “A lot of [those companies] spent a lot of money on this years ago,” says Lefenfeld. “They want to see something hit the market before they go back to the well.”
Despite those disappointments, Lefenfeld says he sees renewed interest in fuel cells. As evidence, he cites the late November acquisition of portable fuel cell maker Angstrom Power by a Canadian subsidiary of BIC Group and Apple’s patents, which were filed in 2010 and published by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office last week.
One Apple patent relates to embedded fuel cells and one to external rechargers. Though the recharger idea is similar to POWERTREKK, Lefenfeld contends that the patents and the attention they have attracted are positive for SiGNa and the industry in general. “We want to see big players coming back to the market,” he says. “Throughout the 2000′s, lots of people got excited about fuel cell power but then dumped the business.”
There’s another reason Lefenfeld is heartened by the Apple patents: SiGNa now sees the iPhone and iPad maker as a potential customer. “We want to be a supplier to them,” he adds. “They’re the partner everyone wants to have.”