Unplugging our Gadgets? The Future of Portable Power

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?

Read on…

Silver-zinc Chemistry
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.

Micro-fuel cells
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:

MTI MicroFuel Cells is reporting strong 25% performance gains with its Mobion fuel cell chip (pictured above) used for portable devices such as cell phones and digital cameras.

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.

The good news for micro-fuel cells is that MTI is one of a dozen or so promising fuel cell start ups that include: Jadoo, Medis, PolyFuel Cell, and Viaspace

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

Comment Thread (9 Responses)

  1. What about wireless power? It has been researched for a few years now but Intel made a big announcement about it recently.

    Posted by: AdamEdwards   September 22, 2008
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  2. Adam—- nice, I forgot about that!!! And yes, some stories have hit the web from Intel and basic research at MIT.

    Wireless power is an interesting concept but the real world applications are likely to be low-power consumption devices like sensors or systems that are not doing intense computational calculations.

    It’s hard to imagine high transfer rates of wireless energy being able to compete against electrons from plugging in batteries or refillable fuel cells.

    The general rule of them with energy systems is to find energy stored in the form of chemical bonds.

    Wireless radio or electromagnetic waves can create oscillations that produce energy that can be captured. But the rate of exchange is never going to compete with stored energy of chemical bonds of batteries, gases or liquid fuels.

    The wireless systems are designed for certain types of applications where wires are not convenient.

    And you’d still have to deliver power to the ‘recharge’ beaming station. So one device could be recharged by wireless waves, but the delivery mechanism would need to be connected somehow.

    But it’s certainly an area that will continue to improve.. and sensors are the next wave of embedded computing so we could see wireless power systems in the not so distant future.

    Posted by: Garry Golden   September 22, 2008
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  3. Well, addressing the portability issue is a good start but I want wireless in my home too. As I’m sure is the case for many people, I have acquired an ungodly number of wires (not to mention obsolete or defunct tech gadgets) over the years. There are even people who are slightly freaked out by nests of them (Mar?).

    Agree that one of the big takeways is providing power in areas where wall access is sparse or non-existent. I remember seeing a piece a while back where a manufacturer had created a solar-powered tv and found no market for them so dumped them at a fraction of the cost. Many of them ended up in a remote region of Asia where there was heavy adoption due to the inexpensive price point, no access to electricity and ample sunlight. They were thrilled to get media and be connected. Here is another example of that in action.

    Garry, how do you feel about solar vs. fuel cells in this light?

    Also, congrats on The Energy Roadmap…I’m thrilled that it exists!

    Posted by: Jeff Hilford   September 22, 2008
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  4. Garry, it would seem to me that Micro-fuel cells might create an environmental problem if lots of them were being disposed of. We already have a problem with disposing of batteries. What are your insights on this part of the issue?

    Posted by: Mielle Sullivan   September 23, 2008
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  5. Re: Jeff – solar vs fuel cells

    I would say both are needed. Anything that can produce electricity/H2 locally is a good thing. Whether you have solar cells that produce 2%, 10% or 100% of your needs – I think is a good thing.

    In the case of delivering solar panels to rural villages that have been traditionally ‘off-grid’ from electricity- definitely. (Assuming we’re ready to accept all the consequences of then introducing things like TVs, computers, appliances, et al!)

    One notable project is SELF – Solar Electric Light Fund http://www.self.org/ (Robert Freling – Executive Director) Definitely check out their video page -http://www.self.org/videos1.shtml

    Also look at the (waste-to-energy) microbial fuel cell product concept by Lebônê Solutions (Plenty Magazine

    At the same time I don’t think rural solar power (or any self-generated power like microbial fuel cell) necessarily makes other forms of energy less needed. The most likely path forward is that when ‘off grid’ rural villages get electricity- it changes their path of socio-economic development. Maybe accelerates it!

    So then naturally they want more energy! They’ll also want other things like health services, schools, entertainment, ESPN Sports Center, et al. So even though they might start with solar panels, the end result might be greater integration into a larger regional, national and global economy. If we can deliver energy to them in the same place that they then buy soap or bread, then those solar panels will have new competition!

    Home power systems are definitely going to be big! But in places where not all energy needs are met - my bet is that the high costs of building/maintaining electrical lines to each home will be considered expensive compared to retail distribution of high density packets. But only time will tell…

    So – solar vs fuel cells. Definitely both.

    Thanks for the question—- and link to the story. And I’m also excited for The Energy Roadmap.com

    Posted by: Garry Golden   September 23, 2008
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  6. Re: Waste disposal Mielle— You definitely want to address waste. First, I don’t think we can escape having some sort of waste or by product in anything we do. But I think refillable micro-fuel cells are better for the planet than batteries.

    The container that holds the liquid methanol will likely be plastic – and recyclable where possible. But it will be non-toxic – unlike many batteries.

    Also they would have a much higher energy density. So you’d need to ship fewer products. And dispose of fewer products. This would be a significant gain.

    There is also a strong chance that cities and states would legislate a mandatory recycling fee for portable packets. Just like a 10 cent bottle deposit.

    But excellent point—trade of with waste…

    Posted by: Garry Golden   September 23, 2008
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  7. Good news! If the fuel cells are non-toxic that’s a huge step forward.

    Posted by: Mielle Sullivan   September 23, 2008
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  8. Garry, one more question. Do you think we’ll ever be able to recycle batteries and electronics, or at least dispose of them safely at home? I’ve heard the city has collection drives once a month but that is so inefficient that I can’t believe anyone does it. Until we get a new bin outside our house like we have for paper/plastic/aluminum, we will probably continue to throw this stuff out against our better environmental judgment. I am sure it is terrible for landfills.

    Posted by: AdamEdwards   September 25, 2008
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  9. Adam Re: recycling Wish I could answer that question. Definitely a public policy question for cities to tackle. There is definitely room for improvement. The one notable thing I have heard (which you might explore)relates to the global nature of recycling electronics. Short story is – we don’t do it. We ship it elsewhere w/ lower regulatory barriers to waste disposal. And should places like China/India implement their own domestic recycling infrastructure- the bottom could fall out on prices. This could make recycling (electronics or other things like cardboard) harder to do since the financial incentive could be taken away.

    It was explained to me by a major packaging company – so can’t confirm reality of materials market. But I know it’s dynamic. Keep me posted.

    Posted by: Garry Golden   September 25, 2008
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