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Miniature Fuel Cell Power Boost

New Scientist reports that Stanford University researchers have figured out a way to boost the power output of miniature hydrogen fuel cells by up to 50%. The trick is to reduce the size and increase the number of channels leading from the fuel source to the cell's center. Laptop fuel cells which could run for 20 hours with earlier versions can run nearly 30 hours. Researchers hope to replace batteries with fuel cells because of their longer life and fewer toxic components.

Ah, yes, the catch: this only works with hydrogen fuel cells. Methane mini-fuel cells have been the preferred choice so far, because methane is easier to handle than hydrogen and packs more power per volume. But methane produces CO2 as waste, while hydrogen fuel cells produce only water. Environmentally, H2-based mini-fuel cells would be better than methane ones. This Stanford discovery makes hydrogen minis once again a reasonable alternative... if someone comes up with a good, safe way of distributing the hydrogen for the fuel cells.

This is important not just because having one's laptop battery give out after 3-4 hours is annoying, but because the batteries most often used in portable electronics these days -- lithium-ion -- contains sufficient levels of toxic lithium metal [PDF} that they are largely prohibited from landfills. Given that it's been estimated that over a hundred million mobile phones will be discarded (along with their batteries) in the US in 2005 alone, moving to a portable power source that doesn't threaten to leach metals into groundwater seems wise. If the alternative doesn't add to carbon emissions, all the better.

Comments (5)

Stefan Jones:

A laptop whose batteries (sorry, fuel cells) lasted "just" TEN hours would be a major leap forward.

True that, although I don't think I'd sacrifice convenient recharging for long power life. It seems to me that the biggest sticking point for fuel cells is going to be replenishment -- unless your power system can re-crack the water when plugged in to make hydrogen for later use, I'm not sure how a fuel cell based laptop can be recharged easily.

Stefan Jones:

The prototypes I've read about use pen-sized sealed alcohol cartridges.

The danger there is that the manufacturers will charge as much for the stuff as printer manufacturers charge for inkjet ink.

This also has major implications for renewable energy. ;-)

Re discarding Lithium Ion batteries, Australia has a scheme where you can take a mobile phone or laptop battery back to any place that sells mobile phones, and they dispose of it safely. Unfortunately, it's not widely publicised.

Would be interested to know if other countries have similar schemes. (also for disposing of hazardous computer waste in general... is there anyone doing it well?)


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