Home >Mint-lounge >Features >Apple betting big on fuel cell for mobile devices

Battery life remains a concern with every portable device, and even more so with smartphones, which are becoming more and more popular by the day. Battery optimisation, software enhancement, advanced chips can go to an extent in getting more backup time on a single charge, but those improvements are incremental. Battery technology being used can make a bigger difference–smartphones these days pack in the lithium ion (Li-ion) battery tech. Solar cells, aluminium ion and fuel cells are some of the alternatives that have been considered but they were facing a simple problem—how do you make them small enough to fit inside your smartphone.

Apple, the maker of the iPhone, has identified fuel cells as the battery tech for the future, be it for phones, tablets or mobile computing devices. They received a patent for a portable fuel cell system last week from the US Patent and Trademark office, after having filed for it back in March this year.

What is a fuel cell?

Fuel cell technology has been around for many years, but hasn’t gained the traction as it should have. It has mostly been used as APUs (auxilary power unit) and power backup and in electric cars, such as the Toyota Prius, and even buses.

There are different types of fuel cells and they use different types of fuel. The most commonly used combination uses liquid hydrogen, which is stored inside a separate tank or cartridge, and Oxygen gas which is drawn from the atmosphere, to produce electricity. Though hydrogen is the most popular fuel, Apple intends to explore other fuel options like sodium borohydride and lithium hydride. Its non-toxic and its carbon footprint is relatively low in comparison with existing battery types.

It is quite different to Lithium ion cells where the battery generates power from the energy produced within the battery itself, which also means heat is emitted and shorter battery life. A lithium ion is an electro-chemical cell based on lithium cobalt oxide.

How is fuel cell better than a lithium ion battery?

Lithium ion batteries have become quite cost effective over time. A single charge lasts a day or a bit more in smartphones, and can offer battery life anywhere between 3-12 hours in a laptop. The usable life of Li-ion battery is maximum of two years, or around 1000 charge and discharge cycles, before they are unable to hold charge and eventually wear out completely.

A fuel cell, in comparison, hold the charge longer than a lithium ion batteries. Basically, you can charge the phone today, and it may not need charging again for the next 4-5 days ideally.

Fuel cell is clean and more eco-friendly too. Its bi-product is limited heat and small quantities of water vapour. It’ll be interesting to see how Apple works around the water vapour residue bit in a phone or laptop. In turn, a Li-ion battery is not a pollution hazard while it is used but becomes one if it is wrongly discarded and not recycled. And to be honest, how many of us actually bother to properly recycle the batteries we are discarding?

Then there is the question of energy density, which is measured in energy per kilogram. A fuel cell has 200 times more energy density than a Li-ion battery. Simply put, the higher the energy density, the more energy can be stored on a device.

The road ahead

According to a report in The Telegraph, a British company Intelligent Energy has developed a smartphone prototype that runs on both Li-ion and Fuel Cell. The company is working with Apple to make it commercially available. The biggest challenge for Apple is to make it cost-effective and how to make the fuel cell technology small enough to fit in mobile devices. And do we charge it just like we plug in our phones today, or like fuel cell based cars, there will be separate charging stations. If it is the latter, it’ll be a logistics nightmare best avoided.

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