Nell Boyce, NPR
This fuel cell (right) is being tested at Ft. Belvoir as a possible replacement for the main standard-issue military battery (front left). For comparison, an AA battery is in the foreground.
This fuel cell (right) is being tested at Ft. Belvoir as a possible replacement for the main standard-issue military battery (front left). For comparison, an AA battery is in the foreground. Nell Boyce, NPR
Cell phones and laptop computers make a lot of different sounds, but the saddest and most plaintive one may be the beep that means "Low Battery." People hear that beep all the time, because most so-called "wireless" gadgets can't run for very long before they have to get plugged into a wall and spend hours recharging.
That's why technology companies — and even the U. S. military — are working on new power sources that last longer than today's batteries. One unexpected answer is a highly flammable liquid fuel that has been around for over 300 years.
A Lighter Battery Load for U.S. Troops
The fuel is called methanol, or wood alcohol. It used to get distilled from wood; now it is mostly synthesized using natural gas. A few years ago, U.S. Army engineer Chris Bolton started wondering if methanol could power military gadgets. But Bolton knew commanders were "not going to be equipping the troops with gasoline that is going to turn them into human torches every time they get shot." So first he performed a crude, but important, safety experiment. "We put methanol canisters on a mannequin and basically shot him with tracer rounds," he says. "We couldn't set it alight."
That was good to know, since war zones have a lot of flying bullets — but it's hard to find batteries or rechargers on the battlefield. So Bolton says a typical infantry platoon needs to carry more than 150 pounds of batteries if it is going on a five-day mission. The batteries power a laundry list of electronics. "They have night vision devices. They have image intensification devices, IR devices, laser range finders, radios, GPS, even a few laptops out there," says Bolton. "The average energy [need] for the soldier is going up because we give him more electronics."
To keep those electronics running, the military is taking a close look at methanol. Just a teacup holds a huge amount of energy: four or five times more than a battery of the same size and weight. At his Ft. Belvoir laboratory near Washington, D.C., Bolton recently showed off one methanol power pack he's testing. It's a square, green device the size of an office phone. Bolton picked up a plastic bottle of methanol and screwed it onto the device. "It has a simple little on-and-off switch," he explained, switching it on. "You hear some noise on start up, it's basically a little chemical plant."
It's called a fuel cell. Tiny pumps move the methanol through a chemical process that extracts the energy without setting the fuel on fire. The idea has been around for a long time, but now fuel cells are getting smaller. Bolton expects this system to shrink down even more in the next year. He says special operations troops, which often go out on secret missions that last for days, could be carrying it within two years.
More Hours on Your Cell Phone
The military's real warriors could soon be followed by the business world's "road warriors." Executives who travel all the time hate having to wait for a battery to recharge. That's why a slew of technology companies are also looking at methanol. "We get complaints that the battery doesn't last long enough. We need something better," says Jerry Hallmark, who works on energy technologies for Motorola.
He predicts early methanol-powered devices will be relatively expensive, so they will be "somewhat of a niche" product. "It's going to be the high-end user, the road warrior, who is going to use something like this. But there is a definite need," he says.
Eventually, he and other industry experts believe the demand for methanol fuel cells will reach beyond traveling executives. Future gadgets on the drawing boards, such as multimedia laptops and video cellphones, have features that will hog more and more power. And although computer companies have started to make machines that use less power, and batteries do improve a little bit every year, Hallmark believes that those advances are not going to be enough. "People want to have video on their cell phones, they want to have music, and they want to have high-speed Internet connection. And they want to have this hours a day," he says. "At some point, a battery is not going to be able to keep up with that demand."
But before methanol can meet that demand, fuel cells have to get smaller. They also have to get cheaper; right now they're often made with platinum, an expensive metal.
Making a Market for Methanol
Still, Hallmark thinks that several new developments make methanol fuel cells look much more plausible. One is a decision by federal transportation officials. Starting next year, they'll allow people to take small, sealed canisters of methanol onto airplanes. "If that hadn't happened, and we had devices that people couldn't travel with, that really would limit the market tremendously," Hallmark explains.
Another important development is that some well-known companies are talking about ways of making methanol easy to buy, in little cartridges. For instance, the BIC company — known for its disposable lighters — says it may soon be possible to walk into a convenience store in Hong Kong or New York, and buy a cheap methanol cartridge that could power your laptop for hours. "We'll be putting methanol and water in a plastic cartridge," says Rick McEttrick, BIC's senior manager for consumer products. He says his company has never made batteries. But, every day, it does make four million pocket lighters, "which is basically a liquid fuel that we put into a plastic body, which is very, very similar to what a micro fuel cell cartridge will be."
Other companies are starting to construct methanol-guzzling prototypes of everyday electronics. Gregory Dolan of the Methanol Institute, an industry group, says they last longer than battery-powered devices. "For example, Toshiba has an MP3 player which runs for 60 hours on just 10 milliliters of methanol. Samsung has demonstrated a laptop that runs for 15 hours," Dolan says. "Hitachi has already demonstrated a cell phone that has two and a half times the run time of current lithium technology and standby time of as much as a month before you have to put in a new fuel cell cartridge."
But Dolan says fuel cells probably wouldn't immediately replace batteries. That's because batteries are better at handling spikes in power demand, like those that occur when you first turn a machine on. So someday, your wireless device may end up having a fuel cell that's there to keep the battery recharged, without having to plug it in and wait.