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Consumer-grade fuel cells may replace your wall chargers

These units have enough power to run all your gear for days at a time

A tech area I keep coming back to is battery technology. Just about every new gadget we acquire uses electrical power, and the mobile nature of police work requires that power source to be self-contained and portable. Electronics have gotten way smaller than they used to be (there is considerably more computing power and storage capacity in an iPhone than there was in a top-of-the-line Windows PC of ten years ago), but battery technology hasn’t kept pace.

Batteries are still heavy, have a limited service life, often use toxic heavy metals, and just don’t pack all that much juice.

An outside-the-box solution for portable power is the fuel cell. So far, the only consistent use of fuel cells has been in manned space vehicles. The Gemini, Apollo, and Space Shuttle vehicles all used fuel cells for electrical power, as they were lighter and more compact than chemical batteries of equivalent capacity. In recent years, the technology has improved so that fuel cell-based power sources are highly portable and produce current so long as they have an energy source — usually hydrogen, alcohol, or butane.

Lilliputian Systems Inc. portable fuel cell (Photo: Lilliputian Systems, Inc.)
Lilliputian Systems Inc. portable fuel cell (Photo: Lilliputian Systems, Inc.)

The newest fuel cell power source for consumer use was recently announced by Lilliputian Systems, and will be sold through Brookstone gadget stores. The power module is about the size of a pack of cigarettes and uses recyclable butane cartridges for fuel. It’s safe enough to be carried in the passenger cabin of an airplane. Lilliputian didn’t provide specs on the new device, but said it is capable of recharging an iPhone 4 between ten and fourteen times on one butane cartridge.

The lithium-ion polymer iPhone 4 battery has a capacity of 1420 milliamp-hours, so that would put the fuel cell pack at a capacity between 14.2 and 19.88 amp-hours. The biggest portable radio battery I could find in Motorola’s inventory has a capacity of 2.7 amp-hours, so that’s pretty impressive.

A fuel cell power source could likely run multiple devices carried by an officer in the field for days at a time — flashlight, radio, smartphone, GPS, even power-hungry devices like IR night vision scopes. When the butane cartridge goes dry, just pop in another one. Each cartridge is no larger than a cigarette lighter.

The reduction in size over previous fuel cell designs is possible by the use of a solid oxide fuel cell membrane deposited onto a silicon chip. The nuts and bolts of the fuel cell don’t differ much from that of a chemical battery — there’s an anode, a cathode, and an electrolyte separating them, but the fuel cell may be able to operate indefinitely as long as the butane keeps coming.

Chemical batteries typically have a service life of around 500 charge-recharge cycles before heat and the inefficiency of the chemical reaction starts to crystallize the electrolyte and reduce the capacity of the battery. Once that happens, the battery dies a slow death. The batteries can also be difficult and expensive to recycle, so many end up in landfills, where they potentially deposit heavy metals into the ground water.

Whether fuel cells manage to penetrate to the public safety market will depend a lot on how this marketing experiment succeeds at Brookstone. The Lilliputian device that will come on the market in the next few months uses a mini-USB port to connect to the devices it’s charging. The mini-USB is slowly becoming the standard connector for consumer electronics power supplies and chargers, and it’s about time. I think all of us have a drawer full of obsolete charger “wall worts” with connector hardware that fit one device and one device only.

Keep an eye on the Brookstone/Lilliputian experiment, and know you may someday recharge your radio with a butane cartridge.

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