Operates much like a battery...
A fuel cell operates in much the same way as a battery: each technology contains an anode and a cathode separated by an electrolyte. However, a key difference exists.
While a battery contains all the requisite electrochemical reactants within a sealed unit, and needs recharging, the fuel cell is supplied externally with reactants. This means it will produce electricity as long as there is a constant fuel supply.
Fuel cells for consumer electronics
Fuel cells have long operated as standby electrical power supply units in remote locations, providing primary or backup power to systems such as telecommunications networks or any others that demand on-site DC (direct current) power supply. More recently, the technology has broken into the automotive market, generating electricity to power motors in a range of vehicles.
Fuel cell systems are now also making inroads into consumer electronics markets, most notably as external battery chargers. Several companies have recently unveiled portable charging systems that contain a micro-fuel cell and are set to rival Li-ion chargers.
They include myFC in Sweden, with its hydrogen-fuelled "PowerTrekk" charger, and US-based Lilliputian Systems, which produces the butane-powered "Nectar" charger and power supply. Singapore-based Horizon Fuel Cells has developed the "MiniPak" charger and power extender and Aquafairy from Japan has launched the AF-M3000 power supply; both of these run on hydrogen.
These pocket-sized systems typically comprise a fuel cell stack, a fuel cell cartridge and control circuitry. When connected to a mobile device via a USB port, they provide 1W to 2W to either re-charge or power your mobile device. For example, Lilliputian’s Nectar System promises to power any USB 2.0 compatible consumer electronics device for up to a month, providing around 10 charges.
Timing it right
So why are micro-fuel cell based mobile device chargers taking off now? The mobile consumer need for power is high on the list.
Some 10 years ago, the typical mobile phone could operate for around a week between charges. Today, your smartphone with its increased functionality, greater antenna power requirements and larger, power-hungry display may only operate for hours. Factor in the move to more advanced mobile networks rolling out at higher and higher frequencies and it’s clear why conventional batteries are struggling to meet the growing energy demand.
Crucially, however, and following decades of development, many of the technologies necessary to enable the fuel cell power supply and charger have come to maturity. For example, materials developments have boosted electrode performance, resulting in fuel cells that can pack more power, while breakthroughs in systems integration have provided more compact products.
IEC International Standards – crucial for safety
As the technology has progressed, the implementation of IEC International Standards for micro-fuel cell power systems has also proven critical to product development. Alan Ludwiszewski, vice president of product development at Lilliputian Systems has been involved with establishing the safety standard IEC 62282-6-100, Fuel cell technologies – Part 6-100: Micro fuel cell power systems – Safety, from the outset, some 9 years ago.
He points out that the biggest challenge in developing micro fuel cell systems has been in ensuring the user can use them anywhere, including on aircraft. This has made the establishment of an independent standard, recognized by industry, safety experts and airline regulators alike, imperative.
IEC 62282-6-100 covers micro-fuel cell power systems, power units and fuel cartridges that are wearable or easily carried by hand, provide up to 60 V DC and do not exceed a power output of 240 VA. It establishes requirements for such products to provide a reasonable degree of safety for normal use, given reasonable likely misuse, as well as safety during transportation. Ludwiszewski adds: “This standard made sure we had a solid platform to design to”.
Come fly with me!
Crucially, the standard outlines numerous key tests that any compliant product must satisfy. Vibration tests ensure a product is robust when handled by a consumer while pressure differential tests make sure a device is safe to fly in an aircraft.
There are also numerous environmental tests including high temperature exposure, temperature cycling and even long-term storage tests. “If you put these systems in a drawer for a period of time, you need to know they will be safe,” says Ludwiszewski.
The tests’ overriding concern is to ensure the fuel cell system will not leak fuel and harmful emissions are not released. For example, compressive loading or crush tests are included to ensure the device remains safe if dropped or stepped on.
Ludwiszewski comments that input from industry regulators led to amendments of draft standards. “For example the drop test was increased from 1m – as used for most electronics products – to 1,8m, to satisfy the aviation regulators that if, say, a charger fell from an overhead bin, it wouldn't create an unsafe situation.”
He adds, “It has taken a number of years for the fuel cell industry to establish this IEC safety standard, get it published as an International Standard as well as work with the aviation regulators to prove the standard is robust enough to allow these products on aircraft. This took a lot of support from the IEC, without which I don't think the industry would have fuel cell approval on aircraft today.”
But the safety standard hasn't just ensured the consumer can take his or her battery charger anywhere. According to Ludwiszewski, it has also reassured investors. “Everybody wanted to know that the new technology was safe, and this provided an independent assessment,” he says. “The standard was heavily scrutinized by regulators and they did not accept it lightly.”
What is next in line for the micro-fuel cell? Industry analyst, Jonathan Wing, from UK-based Fuel Cell Today, now expects the portable fuel cell charger sector to flourish. “This is a lucrative market with quick profits to be made,” he says.
Pointing out that myFC has valued the mobile phone travel charger segment at more than EUR 11 billion, he predicts unit shipments of portable fuel cell chargers in tens of thousands in 2012 alone.
The next step will be to integrate the micro-fuel cell directly into the mobile device, but this could take some time. While Toshiba unveiled a fuel cell powered laptop as early as 2006 and Fluid Computer Systems showcased its fuel cell tablet in 2011, neither met with commercial success.
As Wing surmises: “The consumer isn't ready for a bigger, heavier tablet with its own fuel system as opposed to the today's thinner lighter versions that you can still charge anywhere. [Integrated] fuel cells don't make a lot of sense right now.”
Mass-market product by 2017
Just over a year ago, market intelligence business Pike Research predicted some 4,5 million micro- and small portable fuel cells would ship in 2017, representing a compound annual growth rate of 237% from 2011. And many in the industry, including Ludwiszewski, believe the micro-fuel cell charger and power supply will kick-start the fuel cell's success in consumer electronics.
“This is a high volume application and will allow [manufacturers] to drive costs down”, he says. “This will allow fuel cells to be a mass market product for the first time, while the global IEC [safety] standard will allow us to set up international distribution. We're very excited.”