Micro fuel cells

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Micro Fuel Cells are portable power source for low power electronic devices that converts chemical energy into useable electrical energy. It generates power through the electrochemical reaction of a fuel in the presence of a catalyst. They generate a lot more power than batteries and yield only water as a by-product.

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Why should I be aware of this?

Micro fuel cells are being touted as the portable energy source of the future. The technology is expected to be ready by the end of the decade when developers expect to unveil miniaturized fuel cells for third-generation cell phones, laptop computers, personal digital assistants and other portable electronics.

All about micro fuel cells

Like batteries, fuel cells also generate electricity chemically. And both depend on electrodes (an anode and a cathode) connected by an electrolyte. Fuel cells, however, convert hydrogen or hydrocarbon molecules rather than solid electrodes into electricity.

Miniature fuel cells are not just scaled down large fuel cells. There are much greater engineering challenges which require a difficult balance of providing sufficient power and convenience while minimizing the size and the cost.

Premium with number of benefits

Though in the early days there will be a premium, micro fuel cells will provide a lot of benefits. One need not carry chargers, international wall adapters will not be required and recharging can be done in any place. The value proposition is so high that price will not be a deterrent.

Energy content is not the problem. In practice, a kilogram of hydrogen fuel can deliver from 1,000 to 23,000 watt-hours of energy, whereas the best lithium batteries now range from 175 to 300. But today's prototype micro fuel cells barely reach 100.

Fill the 'power gap'

Fuel cells, which produce power by mixing fuel with air and water between a thin, reactive film membrane, hope to fill the so-called "power gap” caused by increasingly power-hungry devices and traditional batteries’ failure to keep pace. Instead of plugging in to recharge their batteries, users would be able to replace small fuel-filled cartridges, essentially getting an instant recharge.

Challenges

In spite of the advancements made certain challenges remain in micro fuel cells. They are: [1]

  • high-performance room-temperature operation,
  • miniaturization for on-chip use,
  • compatibility with existing system fabrication (CMOS, for example),
  • avoidance of complicated pumps for fuel and air which use energy themselves,
  • use of an efficient silicon-based proton exchange membrane and diffusion layers (novel porous layers for example),
  • full integration with a microchannel architecture and also
  • fuel storage

In addition to applications in mobile consumer devices, the fuel cells could also be integrated as on-chip energy sources for autonomous MEMS and NEMS devices, as well as for sensors and actuators in silicon microelectronics, where efficient fuel use will be important. Different kinds of applications will require different kinds of fuel cells.

90 degrees

The biggest challenge to micro fuel cells is getting enough early adopters to pay a premium. While a small group of early adopters will pay more for extra convenience, the mainstream market will need to see cost benefits, and many people think of the electricity used to recharge batteries as nearly free.

Micro fuel cells will have to be superior to conventional offerings, and lithium-ion is still a relatively new technology that’s being innovated on. [2]

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Additional information

References:

  • Micro Fuel Cell Basics
  • Fuel Cell Phones
  • Micro Fuel Cells Get Closer to Replacing Batteries

Source

  1. PHYSORG.COM
  2. Greentech Media