There are a bunch of people in the gadget world that have been waiting and waiting for laptops and notebooks that run on power sources other than traditional batteries. The most obvious source of power for the machines, other than batteries, is fuel cells.
Prototype fuel cell notebooks have popped up a few times over the years, but still no one has offered up a fuel cell powered notebook. Scientists at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) have made a breakthrough that may help notebooks powered by methane fuel cells make it to market faster. The research is led by Shiriram Ramanathan and the team is optimistic about potential commercial uses of their tech.
The researchers have published a paper that demonstrates a new type of functional all-ceramic thin-film solid-oxide fuel cell (SOFCs) that doesn't have platinum in its construction. The high price of platinum is one of the reasons that fuel cells have been so expensive and stayed out of production along with the production of heat and issues with reliability.
The platinum tends to wear fast in many fuel cells and leads to poor reliability, but the research team's breakthrough with its new fuel cell design may address that reliability issue. "If you use porous metal electrodes," explains Ramanathan, "they tend to be inherently unstable over long periods of time. They start to agglomerate and create open circuits in the fuel cells."
The team also published another paper where they outlined a methane-fueled micro-SOFC that is able to operate at under 500C, which is rare. SOFCs typically operate at around 800C making them practical for stationary power where the high temperatures can be dealt with. Researchers and scientists are trying to whittle temperatures that the fuel cells operate at down to 300C where they will be more appealing for use in mobile applications.
The use of methane as a fuel is important as well, since most fuel cells run on hydrogen that has to be pure and is expensive to make. Methane is abundant and cheap. "Future research at SEAS will explore new types of catalysts for methane SOFCs, with the goal of identifying affordable, earth-abundant materials that can help lower the operating temperature even further," adds Ramanathan.
Panasonic has shown off a hydrogen fuel cell powered notebook that it hopes to have on the market by 2012.