The Fuel Cell Experience

With the announcement of Samsung's breakthrough with fuel cell technology, comes thoughts about how one's experience is like when we do have smartphones that are powered by fuel cells. Here's a simplified diagram of how a fuel cell works:

The construction of the Low temperature fuel cell PEMFC: Bipolar plate as electrode with in-milled gas channel structure, fabricated from conductive plastics (enhanced with carbon nanotubes for more conductivity); Porous carbon papers; Reactive layer, usually on the polymer membrane applied; polymer membrane.


What about size?

I'm sure the batteries will be large in the early stages of development and devices that are powered by fuel cells would look like some of the old "brick-phones" (or "Big Brother" phones in South East Asia) we used to have. Or perhaps we'd be carrying around a portable charger that is fuel cell powered that charges our sexy little phone via USB which is a more viable solution.

What about fuel?

Most of the fuel cell technologies (if not all) are powered by a liquid solution either Methanol, some forms of acid, molten carbon, hydrogen, sodium hydroxide and etc. If it's liquid, then how would one carry them around? Like a bottle of water? perhaps lighter fluid? Try taking that onto an airplane.

What about safety?

Of course, companies will make these fuel cells as safe as any other liquid propellant or batteries but you can't help but to think about leakage, how to remove waste (in this case water of powered by hydrogen), will there be smoke or vapor from an exhaust? Methanol is poisonous and is somewhat flammable. Hydrogen we all know can cause a scene.

What about heat?

Fuel cell converts fuel into 50% electrical energy and 50% heat. This is great in future fuel cell powered homes, where we can make use of both the electricity and the heat it produces (but not for those living near the equator). But imagine a fuel cell on your phone. "My phone is pretty hot" takes on a whole new meaning.

What about noise?

Fuel cells are silent by nature, they're lightweight, no moving parts and do not involve any internal combustion.

What about supply?

No worries here, if the fuel cell is powered by hydrogen, all we need is a hydrogen station that takes water and electricity (preferably via solar power) and converts it to hydrogen fuel via electrolysis for your devices. Daimler Chrysler and Royal Dutch Shell have already built a refueling station in Iceland.

What about price?

In the hydrogen scenario, fuel source (water & electricity) isn't difficult to obtain but I foresee that the energy companies won't be letting us off that easily. I'm sure there will be something perishable in the fuel cell somewhere that we have to constantly purchase to keep our fuel cells going. Perhaps the PEM (Polymer Electrolyte Membrane or proton exchange membrane) which currently costs USD5/m2.

That said, I'm just happy that energy technology is improving. Ever since batteries improved from nickel cadmium to metal hydride to lithium polymer, there hasn't been a huge commercial breakthrough for the past few years until now.

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