SHIFT: Don't tell me fuel cells aren't safe

Remember last summer when laptop batteries were exploding left and right causing the airline industry to place a ban on powering your precious laptop when in the air? While the fault was with poorly manufactured lithium-ion batteries, fuel cells — a new portable power source using actual fuel — has caused those Nervous Nellies to denounce the technology as dangerous. As is usually the case, the Luddites are once again misinformed, causing this awesome technology to be delayed longer than it needs to be. I'll dismiss this ridiculous claim and point out the environmental and energy benefits of fuel cells after the jump.

Lithium-ion batteries have come a long way from where they once were. These days my laptop can get through a three-hour flight without quitting while my last one used to crap out after 30 minutes. But over the next year, after constant recharging, that battery is going to lose its ability to hold a charge to the point where I can't go from one room to another without shutting down. And don't get me started on my waning cell-phone battery. No sooner do I place a call for Chinese take-out than my phone shuts down because it can't power itself longer than two minutes. In short, lithium-ion batteries suck! I can't even throw old ones into a landfill due to all the hazardous materials they're made from.


In with the New
Fuel cells work by combining chemicals (like hydrogen and oxygen) to produce electricity, with the only byproduct being water and heat, making them incredibly energy efficient. In fact, compared to traditional batteries, fuel cells like those being developed by Jadoo Power and others, are smaller, have a consistent run time over life, can be hot swapped without losing power to the device, have no memory buildup, and you can recharge four fuel cells in less time than it takes to recharge a single traditional battery. LG thinks fuel cells are a great idea and is developing a new 25-watt battery for laptops that will be able to supply power for over 10 hours. Now that's a power supply I can get behind!


Safe in a War Zone
But the idea of carrying around a pocket full of hydrogen probably doesn't sit well with most people. After all, this is the same fuel that incinerated the Hindenburg. Rest assured companies developing these portable fuel cells have taken these concerns into account and currently favor methanol over the more volatile hydrogen. Even if hydrogen is used, it's being packaged in such a way to make it extremely safe — so safe that the military and first responders are experimenting with the technology in the field. Using Direct Methanol Micro Fuel Cells (DMFC), the military has been able to reduce the weight of power supplies used in the field by 13 pounds and reduce the cost of power by 50%.

Even more impressive is the use Proton Exchange Membrane (PEM) fuel cells in armored vehicles. These hydrogen-based systems can power the entire electrical needs of high-tech assault vehicles without the need of wasting precious diesel. If fuel cells can be used in war zones without fear of leaks or explosions, then carrying a small cell in your pocket shouldn't pose much of a risk. The last time I looked, I wasn't dodging any bullets so the chance of a fuel cell getting pierced in my pocket is nil. Apparently the airline industry agrees as it's considering allowing the technology to be used while in flight.

The Time Is Now?
If safety isn't the issue, what's holding the technology up? As much as I want fuel cells to power my laptop on a transcontinental flight and beyond, the technology is still in the early stages of deployment, making it incredibly expensive. When I calculated what would be needed to convert my laptop to a fuel cell, the grand total tipped the scales at $2,200, or about six times the cost of buying a new laptop battery.

The good news is more companies are looking at fuel cells to power gear used by road warriors, and it is expected by this time next year, we'll see affordable solutions to an ever-growing problem of desperately looking for a power outlet before we lose power to our portable devices. Once fuel cells reach mass deployment, that price is going to plummet faster than Sony's stock when it was revealed it was the one behind the faulty exploding lithium-ion battery scare last summer.

Fuel cells have been in development since the early 19th century and to date, there have been no documented instances of fuel cells exploding. Number of lithium-ion batteries recalled: 7 million. Number of fuel cells recalled: 0. The technology is safe, and it should be put into portables as soon as possible. My cell phone needs it!