Embedded fuel cells power smartphones for a week… and could run the world


People love their smartphones but hate poor battery life. We love having access to the world’s information at our fingertips but tire of the need to constantly plug in to the world’s electricity grid. The recharging model of batteries fails us — the marketplace is ready for a new approach to portable power.

We may be entering the early days of refueling products to gain longer performance and freedom from cords and electric sockets. Beyond powering our devices 10 times longer than batteries, this refueling model of personal power systems might also set the stage for a “leapfrog” energy scenario that brings billions of people into the age of electricity by delivering clean fuels to retail shelves.

Refueling versus recharging

In January of this year, social media spread viral stories about a CES demonstration of an iPhone that could hold its power for a week, and shared images of a hydrogen-fueled drone that could fly six times longer than a battery-operated version. Both stories hinted that there might be a fuel-based revolution ahead in portable energy for our smartphones and laptops.

At the center of the excitement is a magical energy technology: the micro fuel cell. In basic terms, a fuel cell converts chemical energy into electricity. When devices need more power, we simply add more fuel. No wait time for recharging. No cords. Just add clean fuel that you can find on any retail shelf across the world.

The company behind both breakthrough stories is U.K.-based Intelligent Energy. While the British company is far from a household name, industry insiders recognize that Intelligent Energy is within striking distance of a potential game-changer for how we power our portable devices. Carry their vision out far enough and micro fuel cells might also transform how we solve issues of global-energy access to clean fuels and electricity.

While the CES iPhone and drone stories made headlines, an earlier (and more important) announcement was widely ignored. In late 2015, Intelligent Energy entered OEM agreementto develop embedded fuel cells for an emerging smartphone developer. What does this signal mean? Cutting the cord to electrical outlets or charging pads is actually possible with current technology.

As fuel-cell technology matures in the years ahead, we can imagine refueling our phones once or twice a month.

Intelligent Energy isn’t alone in its quest to bring micro fuel cells to the world. First-generation micro fuel cell products — sold as battery rechargers to campers, business travelers and the military — are coming to market fromBrunton, MyFC JAQ, Kraftwerk and Ardica. The challenge for these companies is to avoid being branded as a “battery recharging system,” and presenting the technology as a new way of thinking about portable personal power and the role of clean hydrogen-rich fuels.

To jumpstart the transition, all eyes will be on decisions made by manufacturers like Foxconn, Apple, Samsung and Sony, which will deliver the fuel-cell proposition to consumers. These manufacturers want to deliver consumer products that have unprecedented power, performance and convenience. Embedding power plants inside devices would be a small leap for manufacturers, and a potentially giant leap for consumers seeking to escape the cycle of daily recharging.

The future of refueling portable devices is an ideal business model: more convenient for consumers and also more expensive. Skeptics may question consumer willingness to shift from very cheap electricity (annual recharging costs under $10) to buying premium fuels (likely $30-100/year). Opportunists will point to bottled water as an example of where a portable, premium version of a cheaper product has succeeded.

Premium cartridges of hydrogen-rich fuels would be available on retail shelves and everywhere across the public landscape (think malls and airports that currently offer charging stations). Because fuel devices run 6-10 times longer than batteries, the need to refuel will be infrequent. As fuel-cell technology matures in the years ahead, we can imagine refueling our phones once or twice a month. The tremendous benefit lies in the constant uptime and, by extension, a lack of stress that our batteries will die while we’re on the go.

Challenges and opportunities

Will our default fuel be hydrogen or a liquid fuel like butane currently used for lighters? The standards for refueling micro fuel cells remain unresolved. The sector is ripe for a battle of Beta versus VHS (or, more recently, Apple charger plug versus newer Apple charger plug). The most likely candidates are portable fueling packets of hydrogen-rich gas, liquid fuels or solid-state hydrogen.

Portable fuels and micro fuel cells offer something the cleantech world has yet to see: incentive-free, market-driven growth. While solar, wind and behind-the-meter battery storage have relied heavily on government incentives to jumpstart and sustain growth, micro fuel cells don’t require a government subsidy for growth. Selling fuels on retail shelves opens a pathway that is entirely driven by consumer demand as people will pay more for hydrogen-rich fuel because it powers their devices for significantly longer than electricity-dependent batteries.

Hydrogen’s role as a universal energy carrier is an upside for this scenario of portable personal power. Suppliers of hydrogen-rich fuels can emerge in any region around the world using feedstocks from traditional natural gas or from new cleantech brands that sell solar-hydrogen or bio-derived hydrogen at a premium. Concerns over energy losses from producing and storing hydrogen are muted these days as researchers improve nano-materials that drive chemical reactions.

Incremental revolution of refueling versus recharging

The next decade will be critical for micro fuel-cell innovations. Think of the technology as somewhere between a late 1980s Motorola carry-pack cellular phone and the late 1990s flip phone. The vision of fuel-based power systems is compelling, and the technology’s maturity hints at an S-curve tipping point ahead. Yet this energy platform will still need old-fashioned time and experience.

Believing in this scenario rests on two assumptions that must remain true. The first is that refueling beats recharging. The electrochemical conversion of fuels into electricity will always outperform the storage approach of batteries. Second, the profits of selling fuels will sustain this higher-cost path of embedded fuel cells while dropping costs for global scaling.

Slow pace of fast change

No roadmap for rethinking portable energy has been made public yet, but by taking a deep look at positioning by industry players and consumer frustration with batteries, we might expect first-generation fuel cells embedded in smartphones and laptops within the next five years. From there, the cost curve matures and the scaling phase begins. Headlines from the not-too-distant future might resemble the following timeline:

August 2018: The energy revolution at… Burning Man. News stories emerge from Burning Man communities embracing small stationary and micro fuel cells to power camps and art pieces. Many in the community applaud the small footprint and efficiency of these solid-state devices and claim that the hydrogen fuel is produced from green sources. Skeptical Burners complain that empty hydrogen fuel packets litter the Playa and express concerns of waste byproducts.

September 2020: Apple CEO Ashton Kutcher announces embedded fuel cell for iPhone 10. The audience commends the elegant design of Apple iFuel dispensers and H2 cartridges — ignoring the fact that Apple will now make an estimated $85 a year per consumer to refuel their devices.  Apple fans rejoice and say the premium is worth the convenience to only refuel devices twice a month.

December 2022: China’s five-year fuel-cell plan. The Communist Party announces revision to its latest Five-Year Plan and will focus on higher-value product integration and scaling challenges of embedded fuel cells inside consumer devices and industrial equipment.

April 2024: Intel acquires Intelligent Energy. In its push for embedded energy systems, Intel acquires the talent and assets of U.K.’s fast-growing fuel-cell designer. The US$6 billion acquisition represents a new direction for Intel into clean energy space.

November 2028: The cordless Christmas. If we thought unplugging from the landline phone was big, retailers are now touting cordless fuel-cell-based products. IKEA has announced plans to eliminate cords by 2035. GE sells an LED lightbulb with all the fuel it will ever need for its lifetime.

May 2029: Texas copper-free construction permits. Texas has become first state to grant permits for residential and commercial housing to be built without internal electrical wires and wall sockets. Micro and stationary fuel cells are expected to eliminate the high costs of wiring buildings, possibly rendering electricians the buggy-whip makers of our era.

October 2030: Amazon + Walmart compete to become the No. 1 fuel distributor. Large retailers see opportunities in delivering a range of fueling solutions, from liquid hydrogen-rich fuels to solid-state hydrogen packets. CEOs from Amazon and Walmart have announced their vision to become the world’s largest fuel distributors. Utility stocks continue to decline.

Illuminating the road ahead

Looking beyond 2030, it’s possible to imagine manufacturers integrating fuel cells inside our coffee makers, lamps, irons, vacuum cleaners, washer-dryers or any other object that benefits from long energy life and cordless convenience. Product designers will be thrilled to say goodbye to cords and dependency on electrical outlets. Simply add a cartridge of new fuel or refuel via a dispenser and you’re up and running.

Beyond predictions of early adopters paying a premium for device fuels is a much more impactful goal: a distribution model for radically expanding global access to electricity. Clean fuels could be brought to market anywhere in the world at a variety of price points. Local markets could generate their own hydrogen-rich fuels from regionally available resources. It’s also not difficult to imagine a low-cost supply chain that enables the manufacturing of solid-state fuel cells in regions across the world.

The expanse is wide between embedding fuel cells in a smartphone and a scalable retail-based global energy marketplace. To fill in the gaps, companies like Intelligent Energy will need to solve deep technical challenges and follow sustainable business models that focus on early-adopter markets. For now, micro fuel cells give us a compelling vision for moving beyond batteries and possibly transforming how billions of people might leapfrog into the age of electricity.