Fuel cells were once touted as the ultimate high-tech solution to short laptop battery life, but nearly two decades later we still don’t have them and it seems we never will. What happened to this promising computer power source?
What Is a Fuel Cell?
A fuel cell is a device that converts chemical energy into electricity. So in that regard, it does the same thing a battery does. The difference comes from how a fuel cell generates an electrical current.
Just like a battery, a fuel cell has an anode, a cathode, and an electrolyte. Ions (electrically-charged atoms) move from one to the other, which generates a current. Unlike a battery, energy isn’t stored in the fuel cell. Instead, the cell requires a constant supply of fuel and oxygen. In the case of a hydrogen fuel cell, that would be hydrogen from a storage tank and oxygen from the atmosphere.
The chemical reaction that generates electricity from these two components is caused by a catalyst. A catalyst is a material that causes a chemical reaction without itself undergoing any chemical change. In a hydrogen fuel cell, after releasing the energy into the fuel, the end result is water from the bonding of hydrogen and oxygen atoms.
Fuel cells are remarkable because they provide a clean way to generate electricity from chemical fuel without the same degree of pollution as, for example, a gasoline engine generator. They don’t have to “charge” the way a battery does. Just make sure the fuel and oxygen keep flowing and you’ll have electricity.
Laptop Fuel Cells Are Real!
As fuel cells became smaller, the idea of having a laptop run from one became more promising. However, having a tiny fuel cell doesn’t make the actual fuel any smaller. Take the fuel cell system produced by UltraCell as an example. These are ruggedized power packs that keep laptops running in the field. According to the company, a 250cc fuel cartridge will keep a laptop running for up to 14 hours.
However, if you look at the size of the power pack, it’s as large as the laptop itself! The system also relies on proprietary fuel cartridges. So it is indeed a good solution for remote, off-grid situations. However, lithium batteries coupled with solar power are perhaps more practical, albeit without the instant power advantage of a fuel cell.
Why Don’t We Have Fuel Cells in Our Laptops?
At the time of writing, we don’t have laptops, smartphones, or any other electronics on the mainstream market powered by fuel cells. Even electric cars, which were a prime candidate for the technology, use lithium-ion batteries.
One obvious reason for this is that lithium-ion batteries have become much better than they were in the mid-2000s when the idea of laptop fuel cells gained some traction. Our electronics are also much more power-efficient. An Apple M1 MacBook Air or Pro will run anywhere between 17 to 20 hours on a full charge. Not to mention that fast-charging technology takes most of the pain out of topping up again. We’ve reached the point where the average user isn’t hurting for more battery life.
Battery technology is also set to get dramatically better. New materials such as graphene and the possibility of solid-state batteries and advanced supercapacitors make the messy chemical soup nature of fuel cells far less appealing.
Fuel cells are simply too finicky and expensive to replace the batteries in our laptops. This was the case decades ago when laptop batteries were objectively awful and it’s certainly the case now when that technology has erased most of the advantages fuel cells would bring to the table.
However, somewhat ironically, Apple has kept its own patent for a hydrogen fuel cell power source alive, with patent applications in 2010, 2015, and 2020. There are certainly good use cases (such as fieldwork and military applications) for laptop fuel cells, but we’re somewhat skeptical about the technology replacing current or future battery technology for mainstream users.