Cell phones last a few days on a single battery; laptop computers, two to three hours. If you could have a pocket-sized personal computer with a cell-phone sized battery, how long do you think it would last? Just long enough to check your e-mail, or play a game of solitaire? It’s a sad but unavoidable fact that the more complicated an electronic device gets, the less efficient it is. Researchers Kenneth Lux and Karien Rodriguez, at the University of WisconsIn, came up with an exciting new approach to the problem. Their method not only improves the performance of nano-scale fuel cells, but completely sidesteps the need for industrial-strength technology.
“Even the best electrocatalysts, on a flat surface, give only hundreds of microamps per square centimeter. What you really want is … to increase the surface area by orders of magnitude.” Lux explains to PhysOrg.com, “To do this you need a three-dimensional structure.” To compress more power into smaller volumes, researchers have begun to build fuel cells on the fuzzy frontier of nanotechnology. Silicon etching, evaporation, and other processes borrowed from chip manufacturers have been used to create tightly packed channel arrays to guide the flow of fuel through the cell.
Fuel cells come with an energy capacity at least ten times greater than that of conventional batteries. Where a lithium-ion battery can provide 300 Watt-hours per liter, the methanol in a fuel cell has a theoretical capacity of up to 4800 Watt-hours per liter! Imagine your laptop running for a full day without needing to recharge, and you can see why industry leaders such as Toshiba, IBM, and NEC have been pouring funds into fuel cell research.If fuel-cell technology can be perfected, we might be looking at a future of cheap, disposable battery packs for our favorite electronic gadgets.