Fuel cells, which take in fuel and gently convert it to energy, are supposedly the ultimate in clean, green sources of energy. Twenty hours operating time is one promise made by proponents of future fuel-cell notebook power systems, and it seems that this technology is far closer to commercialisation than we had previously thought.
Fuel cells and Toshiba
Toshiba is in an advanced stage of fuel cell development and is beginning consumer trials in 2007. PC Authority spoke to Toshiba Australia’s Justin White on the technology and how it will affect notebook users, and whether Direct Methanol Fuel Cell (DMFC) technology is likely to hit the market first.
“Yes,” says Justin. “But it still needs a battery of some sort.” How will we refuel our notebooks, then? Will people have to carry lighter fluid to refuel their laptop?
“The process is similar at the moment to fitting an ink cartridge to a printer,” noted Justin.
This may come as a surprise if you think of fuel-cells exclusively as a part of the future hydrogen economy. The ultimate environment-friendly fuel cell would take in pure hydrogen and oxygen as fuel, and output water vapour as waste. However, there are storage problems with hydrogen’s energy density, in that it takes an unreasonable amount of space (and mass) to store a useful volume of it.
Methanol, not hydrogen
A mid-term alternative to hydrogen is to use methanol in fuel cells instead. Methanol has been applied variously as an economical solvent, anti-freeze and rocket fuel. Advantages of methanol over hydrogen include its stable liquid form at room temperature, but when processed, however, it does release
some carbon dioxide.
Methanol today is formulated from natural gas, although it can be created from various forms of organic matter. Methanol has some interesting properties: it is poisonous. It has the potential to cause developmental problems in small children, it is hydrophilic (attracts water, turning into a jelly-like substance on contact) and burns with a nearly invisible colourless flame.
The other in-flight alcohol
A fuel cell apparatus which uses methanol sounds superficially akin to a portable kerosene cooker. There’s a fuel tank and a solid housing which takes the fuel in and does all the work. Can we safely take such a device on an aeroplane?
Carrying flammable liquids on a commercial flight seems to rail against common sense, especially post 9-11. Images of the terrorist who tried to set fire to his shoes spring to mind. While things like cigarette lighters or filled camping cookers are totally prohibited on flights, the fuel-cells’ obvious advantage is there is no attached ignition system. Fuel cells don’t do any burning, and international politics were leveraged to push this new energy source.
Justin White elaborates: “The UN looked at this. They saw the amount of fossil fuel that’s being burnt and put into global warming, and here’s this technology that doesn’t have a burning process.”
The United Nations’ endorsement led to the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) in the United States giving fuel cells the go-ahead for use on commercial flights.
“As I understand it, UN Approval helped the case of fuel cell technology to gain approval with the FAA.” he said.
As any fuel-based power system produces exhaust, will we see this with DMFCs?
“Yes there is,” says Justin. “But we’re looking at warm, humid air as the output. It’s not like the exhaust fumes from a car; it’s not like the exhaust from a flame. It’s not going to be of any harm to people or any other animals”.
If the only exhaust is warm, humid air, it sounds suspiciously like flatulence. Still, the idea of a quietly blatting notebook could still be attractive to users who need over twenty hours of continuous runtime when away from wall sockets.
The price of going green
While notebook fuel cells will lead the way in power density when they launch, there’ll also be a respective increase in the cost of
“How much will people actually pay to be green?” Justin asks. “A full (notebook battery) charge that might have cost five or ten cents could now be several dollars, or whatever the cost of the fuel cell cartridge is.”
Due to this cost, it seems likely that the fuel cell is destined to be a niche power source for use in remote environments. “In remote locations, it’s a lot cheaper to have a store of fuel cell cartridges than lugging a generator.” he said.
Ironing out the kinks
So, what are the current issues facing fuel cells for consumer computing? Apparently, apart from how to be able to fill customer orders, only niggling decisions remain in Toshiba’s fuel
“The biggest stumbling block we’ve got at the moment is potentially a very large demand.” said Justin. “We’ve got to have a fulfilment model in place.”
“All we have to do is get it into a notebook, which we could conceivably do within 12 months. We’re looking at putting that into some prototype notebooks later this year to gauge customer feedback,” he says.
And when might we see fuel cell notebooks on retail shelves?
“At the earliest, we’re looking at 2008. There’s a very good probability we’ll have a fuel-cell notebook by then.”
This Feature appeared in the April, 2007 issue of PC & Tech Authority Magazine