If you're using a rechargeable gadget such as a smartphone, chances are it's powered by a lithium-ion battery, a staple in electronics since the 1990s. But will the li-ion continue to reign supreme? These days smartphones come packed with a dizzying array of power-hungry features like high-definition screens and biometric sensors, placing an increasingly high demand on battery life. It's come to the point that we consider an 18-hour battery life acceptable -- a far cry from the week's worth of juice we used to get from our feature phones in the pre-smartphone era.
It should then come as no surprise that there is a race within the tech industry to find a longer-lasting alternative. Among the most promising are fuel cells, which typically run on elemental hydrogen and promise to exponentially increase the battery life of today's gadgets while eliminating the need to plug in every day. We partnered with Toyota Mirai to show you just how close we are to powering our phones with fuel cells and the innovators who are making it happen.
Move over lithium-ion, the fuel cell is coming
While no commercially available hydrogen-powered smartphones currently exist, there's a good reason to be excited. Prototypes, such as the one unveiled by U.K.-based Intelligent Energy at CES this year, have demonstrated that fuel cells can extend a smartphone's battery life by a full week. Fuel cells, which have been used in transportation as early as the 1950s, also get around the hassle of having to find a power socket and then waiting for the gadget to return to full charge; they provide power instantly, thanks to their unique design.
Unlike lithium-ion batteries, which use a finite amount of lithium (as much as you can fit in a battery) to produce a charge, a fuel cell uses externally supplied hydrogen (or less commonly, methanol) to create an electric current. As the electric current powers the gadget, the hydrogen combines harmlessly with ambient oxygen to create H2O as its byproduct; and since proposed fuel cells for smartphones are quite small (about 4 inches in length), you won't even notice the moisture, which leaves the devices through a weblike membrane. Once the fuel cell runs out of hydrogen, you simply refill or snap on a new hydrogen cartridge that looks like an everyday iPhone case, and you're good to go.
Fuel cells are also much more durable than lithium-ion batteries. Most lithium-ion batteries are rated to last 500 cycles (charging a dead battery to full power) before suffering from capacity loss, which translates to about 9,000 hours of use, assuming 18 hours of operation per charge. Fuel cells, by contrast, can reliably achieve 40,000 hours of use, greatly increasing the lifespan of smartphones and other gadgets. What's more, fuel cells typically use platinum as their primary catalyst, making them a much more valuable as an eventual recyclable than their lithium-ion counterparts.
Fuel cells in action
Although we may be a few years away from buying a fuel cell–equipped smartphone, the technology is already being employed in a number of ways. The military, for example, has used fuel cells for well over a decade to provide juice for laptops and other electronic devices, but you can also find several consumer-level products on the market today.
There's the Hycopter, a hydrogen-powered drone that crushes the 25-minute flight time of its competitors by offering a jaw-dropping four hours of continuous operation. There's also a fuel cell–powered battery pack called Upp (also by Intelligent Energy), which boasts an impressive nine-year lifespan, that lets you charge USB-connected devices like smartphones. Other developments include academic proposals for fuel cell–powered hearing aids and bicycles, and designs for cameras, flashlights, and recharging stations.
While a great deal of progress has been made toward bringing fuel cells to gadgets, there are still a few challenges to overcome before you can use your laptop for days at a time. The cost of fuel cell production is currently high, and few manufacturers are equipped to build them. But the foremost obstacle to industry-level adoption is hydrogen production and distribution; today it's relatively expensive to manufacture, transport and store hydrogen gas for consumer use.
However, thanks to economies of scale and innovations in manufacturing processes, the hurdles facing fuel cells will be easier to overcome with each passing year. And considering how quickly the fuel cell industry is growing (expected to hit $25.5 billion by 2024), a lowered production cost of hydrogen is likely to follow suit, bringing down the price and distribution of fuel cell cartridges. Before you know it, fuel cell cartridges will start appearing in convenience store shelves and online shopping websites, making the gadgets that last a week on a single charge the norm, not the exception.
Fuel cells are the next big thing when it comes to powering our gadgets for days at a time. Consider the all-new Toyota Mirai as your vehicle of choice to explore the brave new world of hydrogen-powered technology.