In the realm of portable electronics, there's a power struggle brewing. Literally.
Laptop and portable computers are getting faster and more powerful processors. Bright, colorful display screens are appearing on ever-smaller cell phones. And handheld computers are turning into wireless radios to send and receive Internet data.
But all of these snazzy features have at least one thing in common: They demand lots of electrical power. And experts say current rechargeable-battery technology hasn't progressed at the same pace as these other portable technologies, leaving a so-called power gap.
But bridging that gap may now be possible through fuel cells, a clean-energy technology that produces electricity from the chemical reactions between hydrogen and oxygen.
Developed as part of NASA's 1960s space program, fuel cells are "nonpolluting" since the only byproduct to power production is pure water. For decades, much of the attention for this clean-energy technology has been focused on large applications — alternative power plants and new "engines" for cars.
But at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., last week, President Bush and other government officials were shown how fuel cells could be used for other purposes.
Companies such as MTI MicroFuel Cells Inc. in Albany, N.Y., for example, showed off a portable fuel-cell device that could provide power to cell phones and laptops for days and weeks on end.
To spur such thinking "beyond the normal," President Bush called for Congress to budget $1.7 billion over the next five years for the further development of fuel-cell technology.
Such money will undoubtedly be useful in helping to overcome many of the obstacles that still remain in making fuel cells practical for everyday use — especially in portable devices.
In addition to making hydrogen fuel readily available and safe, researchers will need to find ways to shrink the size of fuel cells even further without sacrificing efficiency.
Developing a Denser Power Cell
Neah Power Systems, a fuel-cell technology company in Bothell, Wash., thinks it is on the right path to more portable power.
On Monday, the company unveiled a patent-pending fuel-cell design that could fit within the case of an ordinary laptop computer battery, yet provides two or three times the power. The key to the new fuel cell, the company says, is its unique internal makeup.
Most traditional fuel cells rely on a so-called proton exchange membrane or PEM. Typically made of a flat sheet of precious metal such as platinum, the PEM provides the catalyst that causes hydrogen to give up its electron and produce electricity in the fuel cell.
Instead of a flat PEM, Neah's proposed fuel cell uses a block of material made of "porous silicon." Each microscopic pore of the material contains particles of catalyst that converts the hydrogen into electricity and water.
By "stacking" the reaction through the material's microscopic honeycomb-like maze of pores and tunnels, Neah's CEO David Dorheim says the technology allows for a much higher "energy density."
"The PEM is an old technology where you need very large surface areas to create reactions," says Dorheim. "Our stacked porous silicon allows for the same reactions to occur in a denser and smaller package."
The Power of Porous Silicon