The February 2023 issue of IEEE Spectrum is here!

Close bar

Concept of Fuel Cells Powering Laptops Pops Up Again

Why do fuel cell-powered laptops continue to elude us?

2 min read
Concept of Fuel Cells Powering Laptops Pops Up Again

Recently, I related the unceremonious disappearance of the fuel cell-powered laptop that was promised year after year at the beginning of this decade by NEC and just never materialized.

If my guess is right, I would say that NEC had little problems getting the thing to work, or else they wouldn’t have been so cavalier about announcing its introduction year after year, but they just could never sort out the market for the thing. And one look at a photo of the prototype gives you an indication of the problem.

Laptops were developed so people could travel with their computers. Traveling means going on airplanes. No one seemed to consider the problem of how you were supposed to get through airport security with a laptop computer that had a half-liter of methanol attached to it.

But this has not deterred researchers at Harvard University, who have continued perfecting a methane-powered laptop after determining the real problem with these fuel cell-powered laptops is reliability, temperature and cost. I did get a kick out of the headline for this one “Methane-powered laptops may be closer than you think.” Really? I am supposed to fall in line again on this one?

If I were the researchers, and I was really intent on seeing fuel cell-powered laptops on the market, I might contact someone at the Transportation Security Administration and ask them if the foresaw any difficulties getting through security with some methane in one’s laptop.

While you’re waiting for that answer, you could find ways of getting the things to operate at temperatures well below 500° Celsius and celebrate that you managed to develop electrodes for the fuel cells that don’t use platinum.

I welcome research in improving fuel cell technology, every breakthrough counts, but does that research need to be accompanied with application proposals that just don’t seem workable?

The Conversation (0)

Two Startups Are Bringing Fiber to the Processor

Avicena’s blue microLEDs are the dark horse in a race with Ayar Labs’ laser-based system

5 min read
Diffuse blue light shines from a patterned surface through a ring. A blue cable leads away from it.

Avicena’s microLED chiplets could one day link all the CPUs in a computer cluster together.


If a CPU in Seoul sends a byte of data to a processor in Prague, the information covers most of the distance as light, zipping along with no resistance. But put both those processors on the same motherboard, and they’ll need to communicate over energy-sapping copper, which slow the communication speeds possible within computers. Two Silicon Valley startups, Avicena and Ayar Labs, are doing something about that longstanding limit. If they succeed in their attempts to finally bring optical fiber all the way to the processor, it might not just accelerate computing—it might also remake it.

Both companies are developing fiber-connected chiplets, small chips meant to share a high-bandwidth connection with CPUs and other data-hungry silicon in a shared package. They are each ramping up production in 2023, though it may be a couple of years before we see a computer on the market with either product.

Keep Reading ↓Show less