Miniature Fuel Cells to Power Future iPhones and Macs

It sounds like some benefit is finally coming out of the billions being spent around the world, but particularly in the US, on research and development in batteries.

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From automobiles to mobile devices the trusty lithium-ion battery has been an amazing enabler for new technologies but it’s limitations in terms of longevity, energy density and recharge rates are now a barrier to wider up-take of technologies such as electric cars and to faster roll out of developments in mobile communications.

While strides are, no doubt, being made in a replacement for the lithium-ion battery, it seems developments of the current model are bearing the most fruit. For example, replacing the graphite anode with more complex metal mixtures is proving more immediately practical. Two announcements in as many weeks suggest the next tangible step forward may actually be micro fuel cells.

Apple has filed a patent for a fuel cell it calls MagiSafe that could allow a Mac to run for days or even weeks an article says. The patent includes a number of potential fuel sources, all of which would be mixed with water. Fuel cells work by mixing a fuel, such as hydrogen, with an oxidizing agent, such as water or oxygen.

Apple’s patent lists boro-hydride, sodium silicate, lithium hydride, magnesium hydride, a hydrocarbon and compressed or liquid hydrogen and others as potential fuels. The idea is it would run alongside the existing battery recharging it as it goes along. When the fuel cell finally runs out of fuel it would be replaced (or at least the fuel container would be replaced) as a canister that slides out and a new one slots in.

Apple, of course, files lots of patents so it doesn’t mean a fuel cell-powered Mac is about to hit your local store any day now but the near simultaneous announcement by a British firm called Intelligent Energy in the Telegraph that it has made a working iPhone 6 prototype containing both a rechargeable battery and its own fuel cell technology, creating electricity by combining hydrogen and oxygen and producing only small amounts of water and heat as waste, has more immediate promise.

The firm is reported to be claiming charge life of a week and recharging of the fuel cell would be via a slot, much like the current phone socket or lightning charger connection, on future phone models. The firm is said to be considering the cost of recharges.

For some people, a daily recharge is not a major issue, especially if, like my wife, you never turn the phone on in the first place. But others, not unlike a few of my colleagues at MetalMiner who are constantly using their phones, going a whole week without having to recharge would almost be a price-blind decision.

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Most fuel cells rely on PGMs of one sort or another or a mix thereof to catalyze the reaction but the tiny amounts required for mobile device fuel cells are unlikely to impact PGM demand anytime soon. Longer-term, however, the roll-out across the industry could be rapid if such technologies prove to be reliable and cost effective enough for wider uptake, at which point these and roll out applications for miniature fuel cells could create a step change in PGM demand.

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