PORTLAND, Ore. — Fuel cells, which convert hydrogen fuel into electricity, seemed out-gunned by the lithium-ion battery when in 2011 General Motors announced it was pushing back its 2010 goal for fuel-cell cars to 2020. Fuels cells, it turns out, are making a comeback. Intelligent Energy Ltd. (Leicestershire, U.K.) has been quietly speeding up fuel-cell development — for everything from cars to smartphones. Intelligent Energy proved the concept recently by showing Apple iPhone 6 and Macbook Air retrofits with a fuel cell exactly the same size as its current lithium-ion battery, but which energizes the devices for a week between refueling.
The world has been "waiting for an 'unforeseen leap' in battery technology. That leap may not be far off, but it isn’t the battery that will revolutionize power in consumer electronics," said Intelligent Energy in a recent blog titled Always in the Red: The Life and Death of the Smartphone Battery. "We, at Intelligent Energy, believe that the development of embedded fuel cells in smartphones...could be refueled with hydrogen gas from a recyclable canister and power the phone on its own."
If Intelligent Energy has its way you will never see this "Always in the Red" icon again on your iPhone6, or at most once a week, with its identically sized fuel cell to your existing lithium-ion battery.
(Source: Intelligent Energy)
Daring to think small
"Advances in fuel cell technology have allowed it to be scaled for usage at the consumer, automobile and infrastructure levels," Julian Hughes, group business development director & managing director, Consumer Electronics Division at Intelligent Energy, told EE Times. He claims hydrogen fuel cells are perfect for everything from grid storage to powering automobiles, laptops, smartphones and more.
Intelligent Energy has fuel cell solutions for any sized battery application, from grid to automobiles to smartphones, here an in-between suitcase-sized solution. (Source: Intelligent Energy)
The company started with larger applications, and already has installations worldwide, for instance to power cell tower basestations at night — and during grid outages — in India and soon in Suzuki automobiles due out in 2016. However, its recent prototypes for the iPhone 6 and Macbook Air laptops was their most challenging applications, which they believe is ready for commercialization by 2017.
"What we have proven with our recent prototypes of embedded fuel cell technology, in both phones and laptops, is that just as smartphones, tablets, etc. have challenged the way we communicate, fuel cells are the challenger technology to existing power sources, and that's what makes this so exciting. The consumer applications for a portable power source are endless," Hughes told us.
The main advantage of hydrogen fuel cells is that they are immune to grid outages, extend the lifetime of lithium ion batteries from days to weeks, and can use a fuel that is practically inexhaustible and freely available as a gas in the air around us.
Intelligent Energy has managed to produce a fuel cell exactly the same size as the lithium ion battery it comes with, but with a weeks worth of hydrogen fuel refilled through the headphone jack.
"Hydrogen fuel-cell technologies are not confined by grids, battery life and range anxiety," Hughes said. "And they can be integrated into many different technologies. Hydrogen fuel-cell power systems are field proven in the aerospace, automotive, consumer electronics and distributed power & generation markets."
Intelligent Energy has accelerated a 2,000 strong patent portfolio over the last few years as it perfected the functioning and made the fuel cell affordable for use alone, or in combination with lithium-ion batteries to make sure they always stay charged. The company has already penetrated several market segments and is planning to supply fuel-cell solutions at every scale over the next few years.
Clear model image of fuel-cell (behind display) powered laptop prototype.
"We have figured out a way to make our fuel-cell technology commercially viable at a lower cost of ownership and have created a proprietary, very compact and powerful technology," Hughes told us. The company uses a 'design once, deploy many times' business model to gain scale in markets. "For instance powering thousands of telecom towers in India is a big part of this plan, as well as our work in automotive where we already serve nearly 25 percent of the global car OEMs each making more than 1,000,000 cars each per year, and are now passing on the benefits of scale to our other markets. The more use of our technology, the more we can drive prices down through economies of scale," Hughes told us.
Another boost to the company's portfolio of patents and ability to scale its fuel cell technology came when it acquired BIC's (yes, the pen and lighter maker) fuel cell operation which added unique capabilities to Intelligent Energy.
"Our acquisition earlier this year of BIC’s embedded fuel cell and disposable cartridge technology and intellectual property (IP) also enabled us to accelerate our development of embedded hydrogen fuel cell technology. This was also a key step in realizing our vision for universal wireless power, and removing power limitations of today," Hughes told us.
You can already buy external Intelligent Energy fuel cells, called Upps in Apple' Stores, which can recharge your iPhone up to five time and of course the company is trying to sell Apple on including a fuel cell powered iPhone in the future. However, as you might expect Intelligent Energy declined to reveal any ongoing negotiations or speculations regarding which company will come out with the first fuel-cell powered smartphone in late 2017.
Intelligent Energy, which began as a NASA spinoff circa 2008, now has over 400 employees, over $400 million from investors, and occupies a science park once used by Rolls-Royce and is headed by chief executive officer (CEO) Henri Winand, a former Rolls-Royce engineer. It has already proven its fuel-cell technology for automobiles by powering special taxis at the London Olympics in 2012, and analysts report significant cash flow of $21 million in 2014 and as much as $157 million in 2015 albeit with a $78 million overall loss due to research and development expenditures. Suzuki is reported to put it in the red in 2016 with its first fuel-cell powered car. Intelligent Energy is using the ARM model to sell its intellectual property to Suzuki and others rather than do its own manufacturing of most products in the future.
— R. Colin Johnson, Advanced Technology Editor, EE Times