PARIS—Cartridge-based hydrogen and methanol fuel cells have been around for a long time, with many demonstrators showcased by consumer electronics companies including Nokia, NEC, Toshiba, Fujitsu, and Hitachi.
Yet, while promising quick recharges and very long device autonomies, the technology never really took off in the consumer world, but this is about to change, according to Intelligent Energy.
The company licenses fuel cell platforms and technology IP for partners to produce the goods. Currently, it derives about 95% of its revenues from licencing its IP for large fuel cells (in the multiple kW range), such as those used to power remote telecom power sites (often replacing diesel power generators), or to be designed into cars.
But in 2014, the company also opened Consumer Electronics division with the launch of Upp, a portable hydrogen fuel cell power solution with re-usable fuel cartridges now available in Apple stores throughout the UK. The 210x40x48mm unit, which can typically deliver one week's worth of power to a smartphone, received “CE” and “CSA” certification, it was declared safe for carriage on aircraft and got the company some publicity at CES 2015.
The Upp fuel cell unit recharging a smartphone. The refill cartridge is in lighter grey.
In January this year, Intelligent Energy has signed a Letter of Intent (LOI) with a drone manufacturer to develop hydrogen fuel cell powered drones (hoping to rollout technological solutions to increase drone flight time).
Then in February, the company also signed a joint development agreement with an emerging smartphone OEM, aiming to develop embedded fuel cell technology for the manufacturer’s devices. The customer funded £5.25m project is expected to deliver embedded week-long mobile phone power.
So what makes fuel cells ripe for consumer electronics this time?
“Longer battery operation is a generic requirement across the mobile industry”, recognizes Dr. Henri Winand, Intelligent Energy’s chief executive officer. “Nowadays, you’ll find mostly software differentiation across different smartphone hardware platforms, but consumers have all come to the realization that they are being held back by the battery lifetime. And while about 1.3 billion of us have access to electricity, a larger portion of the world’s population lives off the grid”, he reminded EE Times Europe.
“It is not us, as a technology company, saying that we are going to push fuel cells to the consumer market, it is a handset OEM who came to us to find a solution” he notes.
“Secondly, the Upp USB-compatible fuel cell power backup unit that we sell across Apple Stores validates the need for longer energy autonomy. Every single time that a consumer buys a unit or a refill cartridge (RRP of £149 and £5.95 respectively) is a market validation of the product design and pricing strategy.”
“I could compare this to bottled water. What we’ve seen is that in the developed world, people are ready to pay £5.90 worth of energy per week if we offer them a sufficient degree of convenience (independence from the grid), whilst in developing countries, people pay from necessity, to conduct their business despite having difficult access to the grid. When most of a country’s GDP is traded through cell phone communications, no smartphone means no trade and no business”.
A condition for such a business model to work is that refill cartridges be easy to access, either at local corner shops, or through a monthly or yearly subscription model. But Winand says the distribution model for refill cartridges is akin to selling chocolate bars, easy to implement.
“With Upp, we’ve proven the ramping up of fuel cell and cartridge manufacture as well as the business case for it. Now, the joint development of an embedded fuel cell solution for a smartphone OEM will probably take a couple of years, but if the OEM or its manufacturing partners were to ramp up the production of refill cartridges in parallel, then you could see a product ready to hit the market within two years”. To enhance user experience, the fuel cell solution will be hybridized with a battery, giving the choice for consumers to recharge either from the grid or from a fuel cartridge.
At CES, Intelligent Energy made an impression on the drone market, demonstrating drones equipped with its technology, with flying autonomies extended to the hour range.
A drone prototype equipped with a fuel cell stack from Intelligent Energy.
“We’ve been watching the drone market for a long time” admits Winand, “back in 2000, we equipped the first aircraft powered by fuel cells, and drones are definitely a killer app for fuel cells.” he concluded.
The company is targeting the prosumer drone market (in the £1000 price range) where flight times could be more than doubled, from a typical 20mn to over an hour. Based on customer requirements, the company could design cartridge-based solutions for quick plug-and-play refills, or more complex but longer range compressed gas solutions. For drone applications, it could scale up its solutions to cover the power range from 50W to 5000W.
A compact fuel cell stack connected to a cylindrical fuel reservoir.
Winand likes to see his company as the ARM-equivalent of fuel cell technology, holder of a vast catalogue of IP and patents and ready to license custom made solutions based on different bricks of IP.
According to Winand, it will take some years before drones and consumer electronics (including IoT devices) can beat telecom towers in terms of business growth for the company, but as more customers come to Intelligent Energy for sub 100W fuel cell solutions, then the numbers could add up and embedded fuel cells could become a significant business driver, thinks the CEO.
Eventually, the company can only wish that higher volumes will drive manufacturing costs down, attracting more device makers and pulling fuel cells further into the mainstream.
Article originally posted on EE Times Europe.