Extended Run Times Makes Fuel Cells the Power Source of Choice in Portable Devices
The increasing sophistication of portable devices has placed tremendous pressure on power sources to cater to their power output requirements. Since conventional batteries have pulled up short, there is huge demand for innovative power sources such as methanol fuel cells (MFCs) that are robust, easy to use, and affordable, offering extended run times. Fuel cells create but do not store energy the way conventional batteries do, thereby producing only negligible or no harmful emissions, and by-products such as water vapor and trace carbon dioxide. Fuel cells also pack in higher power densities, which make them better suited for power-hungry portable devices. Currently, fuel cell designs are in the prototype stage and act as external power sources for the device. Developers have to ensure that these fuel cells are compact enough for the battery compartments of existing portable devices, produce adequate power, and are lightweight and of flexible design for multiple devices.
However, certain types of MFCs are facing a stiff fight from hydrogen-based formats, which are likely to offer higher power output. Some competing MFC designs include direct methanol, methanol reformat polymer electrolyte membrane (PEM) fuel cells, hydrogen, and solutions including a sodium borohydride mix with other stabilizing and energy-containing additives. "Numerous designs are being tested, and competitors are focusing on different aspects such as the types of fuel or design of cartridge," says the analyst of this research service. "However, the common objective is to secure a viable niche market from the conventional rechargeable battery market."
Military Markets Throw up Opportunities for Further Fuel Cell Development
Fuel cells are dealing with many challenges typical to an emerging technology. Early fuel cell customers will help mold and evolve the technology to a level where it can be launched in the more lucrative mainstream market. "The progression between the early adopter stage and commercial market is oftentimes challenging for emerging technologies such as fuel cells," notes the analyst. "However, the military market provides tremendous support for emerging technology development that can create a shorter early adopter stage as compared to the commercial product marketplace." Power sources for military portable equipment should be able to withstand mechanical abuse, since they will be used for long periods and in extreme weather such as dry desert heat as well as cold sub-terrain and humid conditions. They should also be able to withstand shocks, since most of the equipment on field can be operated under water and are often air dropped.
Fuel cells score over conventional batteries in the military space by offering longer runtime and rapid re-refueling options. "The National Academies' National Research Council has recommended the U.S. Army to test micropower sources for portable electronic devices, since batteries used to power sensors, computers, and communication devices are heavy and encumber the infantry," observes the analyst. "Micro fuel cells are being considered for this purpose due to its benefits of extended runtimes, light weight, and rapid recharge."