by David Chapman
Flashing red bars and “Low Battery” pop-ups, begone.
In the future, you might be able to avoid the mad scramble to the nearest wall outlet to recharge a dying laptop or cell phone and instead pull out a small cartridge of methanol, plug it in and be on your way with your recharged gadget.
First, though, the technology must be developed — and one local university is stepping up to the challenge with help from the federal government.
The University of North Florida recently received $2 million from the U.S. Department of Defense to research and develop a prototype for a direct methanol fuel cell-powered laptop to be used by the military.
UNF mechanical engineer professor Dr. James Fletcher, along with several University of Florida and UNF graduate students and undergraduates, will be researching and developing the prototype in a three-year study.
“This particular project is directed for the fighting soldier who carries quite a few batteries and excess weight into battle,” said Fletcher. “It will help them extend their missions, lighten their weight and improve overall functionality.”
The traditional Lithium-ion batteries are made of lithium and carbon with a lithium ion that moves between an anode and cathode for charging and recharging. Over time it loses its full charge capacity and must be replaced.
Most consumer and military laptops use lithium-ion batteries, and for soldiers, that means the need to carry extra batteries (and extra weight) to stay in the field.
For fuel cells, methanol (wood alcohol) is a liquid that creates a chemical reaction when put in a fuel cell. One side of the cell contains oxygen, and the other methanol. When the methanol cartridge is attached to the fuel cell, the carbon from the methanol turns into carbon dioxide and the hydrogen from the fuel turns to water and the overall reaction produces electricity.
The methanol is stored in cartridges, which are much lighter in weight and can be transported and easily used for an extra power boost that lithium-ion batteries can’t match.
“Direct methanol fuel cells have a much higher power and energy density and potentially, as it gets developed, for the same size you can operate for longer periods of time,” said Fletcher.
A laptop powered by a direct methanol fuel cell would have a longer lifespan, but just how long is still to be determined.
“That’s the big question,” he said. “Theoretically, it’s up to 10 times as long but you can never really achieve that. But, even if it meets the same level, the ability to just pull out a fuel cartridge and put a new one in gives it a lot of functionality that you don’t have now.”
Cost is another issue for the moment, said Fletcher, because the project is in it’s early development phase and every fuel cell is hand made. In time, he said, such technology would have to become competitive to succeed in an open market.
U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez and U.S. Rep. Ander Crenshaw sponsored the bill for the $2 million funding for the university. Without it, Fletcher and the UNF and UF students wouldn’t be able to embark on such a project.
“It’s unbelievable,” said Fletcher, when asked how much the grant helped. “We’re very pleased with all the support Mel Martinez and Ander Crenshaw have given us.”
California-based Polyfuel, the world leader in portable fuel cell membrane technology, is partnering with UNF and UF to help develop the technology. The company is splitting the cost evenly with the Department of Energy to help develop the system to run the laptops.
The benefits for the students and the program include infrastructure for testing that will allow the department to find other projects, said Fletcher.
The students also get the hands-on experience they might not have without such a project.
“It’s a phenomenal research opportunity for graduate and undergraduates that normally wouldn’t be available,” said Fletcher. “We get to partner with high-tech companies and show what UNF is capable of.”
The project will be broken down into a three-year plan, according to Fletcher. Year one will focus on where the technology is and adapting it to military requirements (which are different than consumer) and altering the design to meet those needs. Though the project focuses on military-based application, some of the students say it is only a matter of time before consumers feel the effects of the changing technology.
Year two will include developing the components to make the system work and year three will include component and field testing.
“Technology a lot of time starts in the military and trickles down,” said Phil Bailey, a UNF senior working on the project. “Look at the Internet.”
Bailey thinks fuel cell research and development could follow a similar path to that of automobiles. He sees the parallels, he said, in the way they are fueled and some of the skepticism from critics.
“At one point in history, people thought automobiles were portable bombs,” said Bailey. “After 100 years of research and development, we don’t think twice about filling up our cars at a gas station.”
So, can people expect to see fuel cell-powered accessories, gadgets and hardware in their local electronic stores in the future?
“Absolutely,” said Bailey. “Fuel cells will get smaller and smaller and more affordable just like the rest of technology.”