Time to Think About Fuel Cells?

Mobile_DMFC_jp_07.jpg (JPEG Image, 290x218 pixels) -  (Build 2008092414)Fuel cells are a fairly seductive technology for web workers: they can store a high energy content in a small space, opening the potential of powering portable devices for a long time without recharging. Our sister site Earth2Tech has been keeping an eye on fuel cell developments for a while, but now their use in consumer electronics is starting to look more imminent.

The latest place where the devices have surfaced is the Japanese Ceatac exhibition, where Toshiba is showing off a fuel cell-powered cell phone. While the device on display is only a prototype, they expect to release working models by March of next year. This tallies with a report in Fuel Cell Today passing on the news that Toshiba has been investing in a commercial production plant for the devices.

What does this mean for web workers? The obvious is increased device lifetime: Toshiba is talking in terms of a 50% increase in talk time, which would be nice (especially if the technology moves into power-hungry devices like the iPhone). But there’s another consequence that bears thinking about: carrying the supplies for your phone around.

You see, the work that Toshiba (and other manufacturers) are doing right now is primarily centered on direct methanol fuel cells (DMFCs). To charge one of these fuel cells up, you squirt in 99% pure methanol; apparently Toshiba is planning to sell this in little plastic bottles. So, your traveling kit may expand to contain little bottles of toxic, flammable liquid, along with chargers and batteries.

One interesting thing to contemplate is taking your fuel cell-powered phone on the plane with you. The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration has issued rules allowing these devices and up to 2 spare cartridges in carry-on luggage. So you’re covered there – but I personally would allow plenty of extra check-in time. Particularly if you’re an early adopter, the chance is that the TSA screeners might be a bit fuzzy on this rule.

It’s also easy to foresee a whole new group of office accidents. 100ml isn’t a whole lot – a bit less than half a cup – but I’m sure we all know klutzy coworkers who will manage to squirt the bulk of that on their desks, their papers, or themselves. With methanol being a flammable liquid, that has the potential to be no laughing matter. Hopefully the product packaging experts at Toshiba will work out some reasonably safe injection system, but you probably shouldn’t count on tossing the cartridges around with the same abandon that you do with batteries today.

All in all, though, I expect web workers to welcome these devices when they become available in quantity. We already put up with a lot of things to be mobile; having to learn new tricks to deal with a bottle of methanol in our bags should be no big deal.