Cells for Cells

Most of us are familiar with the drive toward developing fuel-cell technology for cars. It’s a well-documented strategy geared to replacing carbon- based fuels that are doing much to damage our planets ecological future. And there’s no doubt that petrol driven vehicles is a prime market for alternative fuel technology. But let’s not forget other sectors like the military and applications like cell phones.

The latter item has generated interesting discussion between cell-phone and electronics companies. About a year ago, Nokia had temporarily turned away from the idea of fuel cells. Its concerns centered on the design problems of getting cells small enough to fit neatly into cell phones. And like other organisations, it was concerned about whether aviation authorities would ever lift restrictions about passengers carrying methanol-powered fuel cells on board.

On the other hand, Toshiba decided to go a different “cells for cell phones” design route. Instead of fitting inside the phone, its prototype—about the size of a palmtop computer—is used as a portable charging unit. This approach is intriguing the military in particular, in regards to its portable battlefield communications equipment.

The Toshiba cell can recharge a cell-phone battery six times. It’s powered by methanol and the water produced by the power-generation process dilutes the fuel to the correct concentration needed to stimulate electricity-generating chemical reaction. There is, of course, still the question about aviation safety and security. Secure packaging of the cells may alleviate those worries.

But the alternative fuel debate doesn’t focus purely on methanol-based cells. What about hydrogen-powered cells, an approach favoured by some in the automotive industry?

Compared with hydrogen, methanol does have certain disadvantages. It produces carbon dioxide as a byproduct, which means it’s not as clean as water-producing hydrogen. But despite this disadvantage, methanol is safer and easier to store, and is more efficient at producing energy than hydrogen. Also, it’s worth remembering that, as of now, hydrogen is derived from fossil fuels. In the future, it’s more likely that it will be produced from eco-friendlier alternatives, such as solar-powered electrolysis of water.

So my money is currently on methanol-based fuel cells. But, ultimately, like so many technological developments, how fuel cells are powered will lie with consumers. They will judge on cost, convenience, and, increasingly these days, ecological legacy issues.

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