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Portable Fuel Cells

Fuel cells may outdo themselves – with the advent of mobile clean energy, or portable fuel cells, which are expected to have a greater and more rapid-growing market than fuel cells used for transportation.

Portable fuel cells are either built into mobile devices or used to charge them, ridding the need for wall sockets. They operate at a low cost and can be used in off grid operations.

Benefits of portable fuel cells include a longer run time than batteries, rapid recharging, and a significant weight reduction compared to conventional batteries. Portable fuel cells may also prove crucial in the midst of natural disaster as a means to keep devices operating during power outages.

Because the military receives the bulk of a nation’s budget – the U.S. government spends 20 to 30 percent of its total budget on the military – not only do they have the means to test innovative technology, it is a necessity for them to do so. As such, portable fuel cells were among many innovations to be used first by armies, powering GPS systems, communication equipment, and night vision goggles.

Smart Fuel Cell or SFC Energy, a company hailing from Brunnthal/Munich, Germany, has used portable fuel cells to create a product dubbed, “Jenny”. Used by the army, Jenny can potentially weigh 70% less than conventional batteries on a 3-day mission. Jenny contains little heavy metal and is free of the acid found in batteries. So far, Jenny has been used in armies from Germany, as well as Finland, Sweden, Switzerland, Norway, the Netherlands, South Africa, and the United Kingdom.

After much use in soldier power, portable fuel cells are receiving an increase in commercial use, being sold for electronic personal devices, like Ipods, toys, cameras, and laptops. A123 Systems lithium-ion batteries, used first by the U.S. army, have 5x the power and 10x longer charge life than other lithium-ion batteries. They have since been used commercially in Black and Decker’s high-end line of Dewalt power tools. At 36-Volts, these tools have twice the power density of 18-volts tools and 2x to 3x the run time per charge. This gives building professionals who use them the convenience of corded tools without the cord.

As of yet, there is one problem when using portable fuel cells for personal electronics: they may no be safe aboard airliners because of their methanol fuel cartridges and airlines have banned their use.

Still, at ground level there seems to be only positive effects from their use and the fuel-cell industry continues to lobby for carry on permission.


The Clean Tech Revolution, Ron Pernick and Clint Wilder, copyright 2007

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