Fuel cells have been around since the mid 19th century and they've been widely used in applications ranging from emergency and portable power supplies, to, most notably, space travel. So, it was only a matter of time until fuel cells would make an appearance in consumer electronics, where small devices such as cell phones and computers are quickly outpacing their portable power supplies in terms of performance. One of the first companies to throw a hat into the consumer fuel cell ring is Lilliputian Systems, whose Nectar Mobile Power supplies made a lasting impression on CES’ Digital Experience event last night.
This fuel cell is available this summer for an initial investment of $299.95, through Brookstone ($9.99 for butane refills). According to Lillipution representatives, the Nectar fuel cell can provide up to two weeks of recharges for smartphones, all from a device that is approximately the same size as an iPhone 5. Interestingly, the basic chemistry behind this feat is identical to the combustion reactions of butane. In other words, this fuel cell does the same thing as your Zippo lighter. And to be clear, this technology completely frees users of the need for a power outlet.
So how do fuel cells produce electricity, rather than a flame (or if you do it right, an explosion)? Ready for a teeny science lesson? The secret here lies in separating oxygen and fuel from one another, and then very tightly controlling the manner and speed with which the two react. While we are not privy to Lilliputian Systems’ proprietary technology, it's safe to assume it involves an anode containing the fuel, a cathode open to the atmosphere (oxygen), a membrane to separate the two, and, finally, a wire to connect the anode to the cathode, allowing for the flow of electricity.
Fuel cells have a distinct advantage over batteries, in that they are highly efficient and can supply significantly more MAh than any current battery of a similar physical size. We are talking two weeks worth of charge from a fuel cell as compared to about a day from a similarly sized, fully-charged battery. Additionally, once your fuel cell does run out of power, it can be recharged as quickly as you can replace the fuel reservoir (which in a demonstration took all of two seconds). On the other hand, fuel cells will always require a reservoir to contain the fuel required for the reaction, which means two things for natural gas fuel cells like Nectar: (1) you are walking around with up to an ounce of pressurized—and potentially explosive—gas in your pocket, which will probably not go over well with the TSA, and (2) fuel cells will have a relatively large minimum size, since liquids are not compressible.
If you were hoping to see the first fuel cell replacement products at CES 2013, you will be disappointed. But this technology is definitely worth another look, and it may make a big splash in the coming years. As further innovations decrease the size of fuel cells, this new technology may be the answer to those plagued by the dreaded “Charge me!” sound emanating from their portable electronics.