Hydrogen Fuel Cells And The Promise of Unlimited Battery

i-phoneFor years, the quest for the perfect mobile battery has been like the old vaudeville “good news/bad news” routine. The two characters are trying to solve a problem, and the first one keeps leaping up, to swelling orchestral strings, and yelling “I got it!” The other guy jumps with him, before the first guy thinks, says, “No, never mind, that won’t work,” and sits back down. This repeats several times. For a spiritual cousin, see The Simpsons where Homer buys a cursed toy for Bart. (“But it comes with a free frozen yogurt!” “That’s good.” “The frogurt is also cursed.”)

That’s the way the search for the right battery has been. We hear of an awesome new long-lasting battery…only it is three times the size of a smartphone and in no way compatible. Or there is talk of being able to charge batteries constantly through fuel cells on the ceiling…but they turn out to be dangerous for humans. (The frogurt is also cursed.) This might change though. A British company, Intelligent Energy, has announced that they have created a hydrogen fuel cell battery that can last up to a week, and that is perfectly compatible with the iPhone 6. This can open up whole new avenues for mobile tech, and can make mobile technology an even bigger part of our lives.

The Hydrogen Fuel Cell and Apple

Hydrogen has a mixed reputation in public imagination. We absolutely love when a couple of them mix with oxygen so we can get water, a perennial treat. On the other hand, we’re not too keen about the hydrogen bomb, which can kill everyone on the planet. So there’s good and bad. The fuel cells, interestingly, use the water reaction to create energy, and have nothing to do with the bomb.

Basically, hydrogen cells and oxygen cells really want to meet. They’re like characters in a rom-com—all they need is the right introduction. That’s how the hydrogen fuel cell works. It has essentially a tank of hydrogen atoms, which are really small and abundant. They are released into the battery, and from the other side, normal oxygen comes in. In the middle there is a catalyst. The way they are induced toward each other is complicated, but essentially, two hydrogen molecules meet with the one oxygen one, and where they have an electron bond, a tiny jolt of electricity is produced. This is captured by the catalyst and transferred into the energy storage unit of the battery. The minute water vapor produced by such a marriage is filtered out of the battery.

Needless to say, this happens constantly with the battery. Battery technology isn’t new, but what is new is the ability to have such a battery fit inside a smartphone. The scientists at Intelligent Energy made that breakthrough, and were able to install it inside an iPhone 6. This battery can last up to a week without charging, and when it does charge it is nearly instant. The only modifications to the normal iPhone 6 chassis are vents to release the vapor.

As of now, there is no “official” connection between Intelligent Energy and Apple. But Apple has been investing heavily in hydrogen fuel, and both sides have rumored partners which are widely believed to be each other. Even if this isn’t an official partnership, both companies will benefit, and more importantly, so will the consumer.

Hydrogen Fuel Cells and You

An interesting thing to note about the fuel cell battery is that it is intended to be used in addition to the normal battery. It’s like a battery pack. The scientists at Intelligent Energy say that is because they want to ease people into this technology, and not rush too quickly. I think this might be overblown; people will adapt very quickly to batteries that last a week. It’s still a neat concept, though. You can charge the hydrogen battery while the normal battery is being used, and then spend the next week not worrying about anything.

That’s perhaps the most revolutionary thing about it. Having and using a mobile device means, in some ways, always being concerned about battery power. How much power is always in the back of your head, especially during times of high usage. It’s what causes people to scurry around airports looking for an outlet, trying to make sure they have max juice before getting on a flight, lest they have to talk to their seat mate. The power is a constant part of our mobile experience, and keeps us tethered, chained away from a full, unencumbered embrace.

An innovation like hydrogen fuel cell batteries could change that. Imagine not having to think about batteries for a week, and in practical terms, not really having to think about them at all. It’ll take away one of the few burdens of having smartphones and tablets. The idea of usage conversion will essentially be history.

One of the most common TV and movie tropes—misunderstandings coming from being incommunicado—is now mostly a thing of the past thanks to mobile technology, making even very recent shows like Seinfeld seem horribly dated. A common trope now is the dying battery. It’s amazing to think that soon enough, even that extremely modern dilemma will seem like ancient yesterdays, and all thanks to what is literally the most basic elemental connection on the planet.

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