Electronic Design

Coming Soon: Fuel Cells For Laptops, Cars, Homes

I had the good fortune to participate in the 2003 Emerging Technologies Conference at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, last month. From a broad spectrum of technology trends, one stood apart, ready to transform the power-generation status quo: power-generation status quo: hydrogen fuel cells—emerging with a bullet! These fuel cells have incredible momentum and will soon be powering many of the products that you design as well as those that you use in your everyday life.

I've been hearing bits and pieces over the last few years about the potential of hydrogen fuel cells. I'm sure you too are aware of their technological advantages: clean electrical generation with plain water and heat as the only byproducts. Further, hydrogen has three times the energy per kilogram of gasoline.

But the revelation I had at MIT was of the imminent commercial viability of the technology—-not a "maybe someday" scenario like so many other alternative energy sources. Market forces are aligned behind hydrogen fuel cells because unlike other alternative fuels, they offer the economic advantage. Experts say we can soon be producing power from fuel cells at costs that could be lower than fossil fuel. Fuel cells also have the advantages of easy scalability, from micro cells for personal electronics to cells for forklifts and automobiles and through to on-grid power generation.

The MIT conference (produced by our parent company, Penton Media, with Electronic Design as a media sponsor) included keynotes from executives at General Motors and General Electric, both of which have made major bets on fuel-cell technology. Commitment from colossus corporations like GM and GE fuel the momentum. These giants have the leverage to make a huge impact when they put their resources behind new technologies.

GE chairman Jeffrey Immelt stressed the company's size and long-range strategies as tremendous advantages in GE's ability to frame and impact the future. GE, he says, carefully partners with companies that hold the complementary pieces to complete the big picture. GE is working with the likes of Stuart Energy, the market leader in providing the technology for hydrogen fueling stations. Stuart is developing hydrogen "stations" the size of air conditioners that could be used as home fueling units.

Larry Burns, GM's vice president of research, development, and planning, told the MIT audience that GM has totally reinvented the automobile with the Hy Wire (hydrogen by wire) car, the first vehicle to combine a hydrogen fuel cell with by-wire technology. And, yes, fuel cells are zero-emission technology. But perhaps more telling for commercial viability in the U.S., in drag races between a fuel-cell-powered S-10 pickup truck and a gasoline-powered Z-28 Camaro car, the pickup blows away the Camaro every time (due to the instant torque facilitated by the electric drive mechanisms).

GM is advancing its future vision via key alliances. A partnership with Shell Hydrogen includes, as a focal point, the nation's first hydrogen pump at a retail gas station, serving a fleet of six GM hydrogen-powered minivans in Washington, D.C., for at least two years.

Moreover, big business and government seem to be working in harmony on the future vision of a "hydrogen economy." President Bush last January proposed spending $1.2 billion for "Freedom Fuel" (a.k.a. hydrogen) research, while the European Commission has committed more than $2 billion to sustainable-energy projects.

While fuel-cell-powered cars won't likely be in your garage this decade (because the fueling infrastructure presents a formidable obstacle to quick implementation), fuel cells for portable devices are destined to happen much sooner. Also at the MIT conference, in a breakout session on "The Hydrogen Economy Realized," PolyFuel presented its vision of how Direct Methanol Fuel Cells will power everything from PDAs and mobile phones to RVs and pleasure boats. In February, Intel demonstrated a laptop operated by a prototype fuel cell made by PolyFuel.

Casio, as reported in Fuel Cell Today, predicts that the current rechargeable battery will be replaced by fuel cells in 2004 or 2005. Fuel cells promise to extend battery life for portable devices by up to 20 hours as well as eliminate the wait for recharging by using refillable and/or "hot-swappable" fuel cartridges. (Also see Electronic Design, October 13, "Micro Fuel Cells Target Battery Replacement In Handhelds," p. 25, ED Online 5808.)

With the ever-onward push to enhanced functionality in notebooks and other portable devices, fuel cells offer a compelling power solution in the near future. Even though fuel cells in your car, your home, or your electric grid may be further down the pike, I believe they too will be in our future and will radically change our energy status quo—sooner than you think.

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