September 22 2008 / by Garry Golden
Category: Energy Year: 2018 Rating: 11 Hot
It is no secret that the energy delivered by batteries has failed to keep pace with the growing demands of power-hungry consumer products. We all deal with the inconvenience of batteries and plugging in to recharge!
Meanwhile, the multi-billion market for batteries will continue to grow exponentially in the years ahead as more people around the globe cling to advanced consumer electronics. This means more people will be dependent on cords, plugging in and recharging batteries.
The winning combination of qualities in micro-power systems is simple: low cost, long-life, high energy density, quick recharge or refill, non toxic, and safe (e.g. chemical stability and heat management).
Today, portable power means one source- lithium ion batteries (Li-ion). Unfortunately Li-ions suffer from bad chemistry. As manufacturers try to cram more energy into lithium-ion batteries, more heat is generated and the device runs a higher risk of a runaway reaction and fire. The good news is that nanoscale science and engineering is expanding the list of potential solutions to Li-ions problems.
There are a number of promising start ups innovating around nanoscale electrodes, separation membranes and new compounds that could allow lithium ions to grow their market leadership position. Boston-Power Inc, ActaCell, and Lion are start ups with impressive academic institution foundations. So their science seems strong!
Then there are the rapidly rising stars of Altair Nanotechnologies Inc. and A123 Systems who might skip over portable power applications for a potentially more lucrative role for Li-ions in automotive applications.
But let’s think beyond lithium ions. What options exist beyond today’s highest performing consumer batteries? And is there a chance that we might go ‘cord-free’ someday?
How about Silver-zinc batteries and methanol-based micro fuel cells?
In recent months energy and IT bloggers have turned their lack of enthusiasm for Li-ion’s future into hope for the future based on a new class of batteries developed by Camarillo-California based ZPower.
The company has created rechargeable batteries based on silver- and zinc-based electrodes that report to have a far greater energy density (claim 40%) compared with lithium-ions. The other upside is that silver-zinc’s water-based chemistry means improved safety and fewer issues with thermal management. There will be challenges ahead getting manufacturers to design products that operate with silver-zinc power systems, but ZPower is reporting that a major laptop manufacturer will release a silver-zinc friendly product in 2009.
Fuel cells are not dead, they are just late to the party. But methanol based micro fuel cell systems appear to be close to commercialization.
The dream of micro fuel cells is cord-free existence! We can unplug everything and simply ‘refill’ (rather than plug and charge) using small liquid containers of methanol (or other hydrogen rich sources)
The vision is high density energy systems embedded inside the object. Buy your refills in almost any retail environment. When your power runs down, simply take out the old cartridge, insert the new one.
No power interruption. No more re-charging, no more cords. With micro-fuel cells we can finally unplug our portable devices.
Beyond breaking the cord with gadgets, selling refillable packets of energy over retail channels does open the possibility of reaching hundreds of millions of people without access to wall socket based power. If they can buy soap at a retail store, they can also buy high density packets that go far beyond today’s batteries!
The potential for micro-fuel cells is too great to ignore! And our fingers are crossed that 2009-2011 will see significant progress in market applications.
There are a number of micro fuel cell companies that could help push this mainstream product launch of the post-battery era of portable power. Here is one:
The Albany-NY based company has had some recent challenges but has strong support from its parent company (Mechanical Technology, Incorporated), US government partnerships and global manufacturing relationships that should allow it to release its vision of Mobion chips in portable electronics during 2009-10.
It is still too early to pick winners in this portable power industry. But it seems certain that a winner will emerge and that within a decade we might change our attitudes towards plugging in- and look forward to a day when all of our portable gadgets are cord-free.
— Photo: MTI MicroFuel Cells Mobion Chip