Leroy Ohlsen stared at a TV screen, engrossed. The college freshman was captivated not by the Superbowl or a Hollywood thriller, but rather by a Discovery Channel documentary showing a bus cruising city streets, powered by hydrogen fuel cells and emitting nothing worse than water vapor.
The experience was a watershed in his life. While he pursued a bachelor's degree in chemistry at the University of Washington (Seattle), he "dove into all the journals and read everything I possibly could on fuel cells—to understand them, especially the catalysis aspect, where platinum and ruthenium do the magic of busting up chemicals to generate electricity."
Some day before too long, we may all be glad he did. Ohlsen is now in the vanguard of a small group of innovators who are reinventing the fuel cell, the battery-like device in which hydrogen from a fuel reacts with oxygen to produce water and electricity.
Over the past few years, Ohlsen and his competitors have logged several breakthroughs in fuel cells powered directly by alcohol and alcohol mixtures. Though these devices are unlikely to power buses anytime soon, they may well be the key to liberating small appliances from the tyranny of rechargeable batteries. Imagine, for example, a laptop that operates all day or for the better part of a trans-Pacific flight instead of conking out before the meal service dishes are cleared away. Even better, imagine recharging (or, rather, refueling) the device in just a few seconds instead of the hours required to recharge a battery.
Ohlsen's company, Neah Power Systems Inc. (Bothell, Wash.), is all of four years old. He started it in partnership with an old high-school buddy, Michael Fabian, right after earning his B.S. in 1998, to try to build a better fuel cell. Today, his company's experimental porous-silicon, methanol-fed fuel cells seem to have some important advantages over more traditional designs based on other technologies, like polymer membranes. Neah claims its approach will result in much higher power density—and therefore higher energy density, because space not taken up by the fuel cell stack itself can be used to house a bigger fuel tank. But those other designs, too, are constantly improving.
Batteries have troubles...
The market Ohlsen plans to compete in—replacements for batteries in handheld equipment like cellphones, PDAs, and laptop computers—is exciting for three main reasons:
- Handheld devices are demanding more power than ever. As manufacturers keep adding features like large color screens and wireless interconnectivity, power consumption goes up despite heroic efforts at power management.
- Although batteries are better than ever, they are not keeping up with the demands of handheld equipment. Even the latest lithium-ion batteries can power a laptop computer for only a few hours.
- More important, batteries take hours to recharge and require an electrical outlet to do it. They're not a good solution to the problem of keeping a digital camera up and running during a two-week trek up the Amazon.
Alcohol-fed fuel cells, referred to as DMFCs—for direct methanol fuel cells, although they sometimes run on other kinds of alcohol or alcohol mixtures—are more practical than hydrogen cells for portable applications. The reason: they have no need for high-pressure hydrogen tanks or other special fueling equipment. As their name implies, DMFCs use alcohol directly as a fuel. They do not first extract its hydrogen in a separate piece of equipment and then use the gas.
Perhaps their biggest advantage over batteries is that they are quick and easy to refuel. Most manufacturers plan to offer two refueling options: replace one sealed cartridge with another or open a cap and squirt fuel in, much like refilling a cigarette lighter. Either way, the process is much less burdensome than plugging something into an electrical outlet for several hours.