January 30 2009 / by Garry Golden
Category: Energy Year: 2010 Rating: 7 Hot
Most new technology platforms must walk up the stages of the 'Hype Cycle', and confront our tendency to overestimate short-term change, but underestimate the long term potential.
Fuel cells are this decade's poster child for failing to meet expectations of the Hype Cycle. But there are positive signs of progress.
PC World is reporting that Toshiba plans to release its first commercial version of a Direct methanol fuel cell (DMFC) battery recharger by the end of the first business quarter.
Micro Fuel cells help you unplug
Micro power applications are widely considered to be the first market application for fuel cells. Dozens of startups and incumbent energy companies are developing micro methanol fuel cells as portable power solutions that help us 'unplug everything'.
Rather than carry around a charger+cord, you could carry a small fuel cell to recharge. Of course the idea of a fuel cell battery recharger is still a strange concept to consumers, and could remain an early adopter niche product.
The inevitable step for micro fuel cells is to replace batteries entirely. To arrive at this future, hardware makers must integrate MFCs into products, and consumers must be able to buy small fuel cartridges (e.g. liquid methanol, solid hydrogen) on every retail shelf. Until that day, the 'recharger' concept is the industry's best option.
Batteries & Fuel cells are like Peanut Butter and Jelly, not Oil and Water
Many energy bloggers like to pit batteries against fuel cells.
It's quite comical to read the Comments section of a typical fuel cell post. Skeptics throw virtual hissy fits and go through a very dated and uninformed list of problems related to production, cost, storage, et al.
Skeptics are usually just framing fuel cells at the bottom of the Hype Cycle rather than providing a solid application of market foresight to the natural evolution of technology platforms.
Batteries and fuel cells are actually quite compatible.
While each system has its own ideal set of applications, the two systems are complimentary in certain areas like electric vehicles.
Both devices convert energy via electrochemcial processes, but their schematics, price points, (et al) are different.
Batteries are closed storage systems that must be recharged. This makes it harder to cram more energy into a closed space, and requires us to reconnect to the grid to charge back up.
Fuel cells are open systems that are fed a 'fuel' (e.g. hydrogen, hydrogen rich compound like methanol, or metals) that convert chemical energy into electricity. As long as you provide more fuel the system will generate power.
Packets vs Stream
My own support for advancing micro fuel cells relates to the idea of 'packets' of energy vs 'streams' of electrons.
Today we must connect with the 'stream' of electricity that feeds our wall sockets. But what if we tried to eliminate that dependency on plugging in?
If we bring the world online with batteries, they must have access to wall sockets to recharge.
If we use micro fuel cells, we can sell the 'fuel' separately over retail shelves. You don't need access to the grid, the energy is stored in high density packets that replace the need to plug in.
You'd carry around a small packet of energy, or buy packets at local convenience stores next to bottled water and gum.
Imagine only having to 'refuel' your cell phone once a week instead plugging in everynight?
Imagine having to 'swap out' a box of fuel for your electric car, rather than plug in and wait for the recharge?!
Image: Old Toshiba DFMC