Business Issues -> Innovation
By: Matthew Wailling, Director, Cordless Consultants
Published: 7th July 2011
Copyright Cordless Consultants © 2011
In my last post I gave you a list of 2011’s top ten technologies; those which should be permeating your consciousness when considering your next budget allocation.
First on that list were fuel cells, and what they could mean for portable devices such as tablets. It may not be long before they allow your workforce to be connected anywhere and for far longer periods of time. There are now some 150 different tablets available and, believe it or not, they’re not all from Apple! The guiding principles for any mobile device are that it’s always on, always connected and, well, portable. This means two things 1) it’s going to need a lot of power and 2) it can’t really be tethered down by a power cable.
As someone who’s now on their second iPhone, I’m all too aware that a busy morning out of the office means hunting for a plug by lunchtime. And this challenge isn’t just limited to Apple. The iPad 2 has a battery that should last all day, but what’s the experience of the owner who’s using it rather than wearing it like a fashion statement? And the excitement around the BlackBerry playbook is already being tempered by commentator concerns about its perceived battery life. So what’s the solution? While doing a bit less work and turning devices off for elevenses may be attractive for some, it‘s not be suitable or appropriate for every business model.
Could the answer lie with electrochemical energy conversion devices (or as the marketing department calls them; fuel cells)? We are already familiar with ‘electrochemical energy conversion devices’ otherwise known as the battery. A battery has all its chemicals stored inside, which it converts to energy (electricity), but as we know it eventually goes flat unless you’re connected to a power socket. And it seems pre-programmed to happen mere seconds before we click ‘save’! Fuel cells, however, work on the same principle, but as chemicals, typically hydrogen and oxygen, constantly flow into the device, electricity constantly flows out. Fuel cells generate electricity quietly, they don’t use fossil fuels, and there’s no ongoing pollution either; the by-product is water vapour.
Fuel cells have been around for a while, with the first (alkaline fuel cells) being used by NASA in the 1960s. Unfortunately these were highly susceptible to contamination and very expensive—not great characteristics for something your average user will throw in a bag and lug about the city. Thankfully things have moved on, and a number of solutions are nearing market readiness. One such device is the Mobion from MTI Micro. This portable (cigarette packet size) fuel cell has no moving parts and is estimated to provide up to 60 hours of silent power before it needs a replacement ethanol fuel cartridge—and water vapour is the only waste produced.
A second exciting approach is being made by Swedish company MyFC, which has developed the PowerTrekk portable fuel cell, using hydrogen as its fuel source. The PowerTrekk is marketed as able to work in extreme weather conditions (presumably so you can charge your BlackBerry en route to the top of Everest). Again, the only waste product in power production is water. While these show interesting potential, both the PowerTrekk and Mobion are external charge packs. So although they give hours of extra work-time for the agile worker, it’s yet another device to squeeze into the briefcase (or backpack for those on more mountainous terrain).
This technology only becomes truly exciting when it is integrated with mobile devices, replacing the traditional Lithium-Ion battery. MyFC are moving down this road by developing Fuel Cell ‘blades’—3mm thick sheets that could be integrated to the back of a laptop screen or the bottom of other mobile devices. All we need now is for mobile device manufacturers to work with the likes of MyFC and maybe the mobile vision can become a reality.
So what about these myriad tablets on the market? Admittedly, some are wonderful and some are, well, less so but the model that showed huge potential was the fuel cell-powered Windows 7 tablet from Fluid Systems. This $80k prototype created a lot of excitement at the start of the year and could have marked the start of a new era. Unfortunately, Fluid Systems now reports that its primary investors have withdrawn funding, citing nervousness about competition from established brands such as Apple and Motorola. Sad news for a company that was taking great strides into the future. So perhaps while fuel cell devices are still the grail, we need an Apple or a RIM to focus enough effort and investment in this area to bring them to market.
There are some questions that need answering before we’re in a position to throw away our power cables. One advantage of a mobile device for the business traveller is that we can work when flying, but hydrogen and aviation don’t have a great track record. As you can only just about take an HB pencil through airport security without feeling under serious scrutiny, there may be a way to go to convince airlines that 300 passengers carrying hydrogen cells is nothing to worry about. But that’s a technical point I’m sure the developers can solve. I’m more worried about leaving my fuel cell phone turned on in my pocket and ending up with a very wet suit.
Next time, Matt Wailling will be getting up close and personal with 3D screens.
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