Battery Boosters

Page 9 of 10

Up Next: Eco-Friendly Batteries

For all their compactness and convenience, batteries as we know them may soon become obsolete. Fuel cells in various shapes and sizes have been in the works for decades, but technological hurdles and regulatory issues have prevented products from coming to market. Now, researchers may be nearing a solution that works for mobile devices.

In simple terms, fuel cells convert molecular hydrogen (inside the cell) and oxygen (in the air) into water, which they release back into the air as vapor. The by-product of this reaction is electricity. The basic chemical reaction resembles the one in a battery--involving anodes, cathodes, and electrolytes--but with a few improvements. Instead of requiring recharging via electricity, which is inefficient, a fuel cell uses up its hydrogen store and can then be immediately refilled, much like a butane lighter, with no "recharging" required. Also, pound for pound, a fuel cell can outlast a fully charged battery. And theoretically a fuel cell causes no pollution.

Today most research on fuel cells has focused on methanol as the source of the cells' hydrogen, and a number of large companies--including Hitachi, NEC, and Toshiba--have constructed prototype cells that are designed for mobile devices and use liquid methanol as fuel. But the companies involved have elected to delay launching the technology until 2007, in part due to government regulations about traveling with methanol.

Fuel Cells Coming Soon

The first fuel cells to arrive in stores will likely be in Medis Technologies' Power Pack, which is designed to recharge cell phones and other portable devices and is beginning limited production this year. The pack uses a borohydride-alkaline solution combined with alcohol--which, unlike methanol, is approved for airplane use--but the cell is not refillable, and some financial naysayers assert that the Power Pack is not a true fuel cell because it isn't refillable.

Power Packs should be available at retail stores by this fall. For $12 to $20, a single Power Pack will provide about 80 hours of running time on an iPod or nine full charges of a cell phone, Medis promises.

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