Laptop Fuel Cells Were the Next Big Thing: What Happened?


3D illustration of a hydrogen fuel cell.
Polina Krasnikova/

Gas cells have been as soon as touted as the last word high-tech answer to quick laptop computer battery life, however practically twenty years later we nonetheless don’t have them and it appears we by no means will. What occurred to this promising laptop energy supply?

What Is a Gas Cell?

A gas cell is a tool that converts chemical power into electrical energy. So in that regard, it does the identical factor a battery does. The distinction comes from how a gas cell generates {an electrical} present.

Similar to a battery, a gas cell has an anode, a cathode, and an electrolyte. Ions (electrically-charged atoms) transfer from one to the opposite, which generates a present. In contrast to a battery, power isn’t saved within the gas cell. As an alternative, the cell requires a relentless provide of gas and oxygen. Within the case of a hydrogen gas cell, that will be hydrogen from a storage tank and oxygen from the environment.

Infograph showing how fuel cells work.
Dimitrios Karamitros/

The chemical response that generates electrical energy from these two parts is brought on by a catalyst. A catalyst is a cloth that causes a chemical response with out itself present process any chemical change. In a hydrogen gas cell, after releasing the power into the gas, the tip result’s water from the bonding of hydrogen and oxygen atoms.

Gas cells are outstanding as a result of they supply a clear method to generate electrical energy from chemical gas with out the identical diploma of air pollution as, for instance, a gasoline engine generator. They don’t must “cost” the best way a battery does. Simply ensure the gas and oxygen maintain flowing and also you’ll have electrical energy.

Laptop computer Gas Cells Are Actual!

Ultracell Fuel Cell Laptop
UltraCell LLC

As fuel cells became smaller, the thought of getting a laptop computer run from one turned extra promising. Nonetheless, having a tiny gas cell doesn’t make the precise gas any smaller. Take the gas cell system produced by UltraCell for example. These are ruggedized energy packs that maintain laptops working within the subject. In keeping with the corporate, a 250cc gas cartridge will maintain a laptop computer working for as much as 14 hours.

Nonetheless, in case you have a look at the scale of the facility pack, it’s as massive because the laptop computer itself! The system additionally depends on proprietary gas cartridges. So it’s certainly answer for distant, off-grid conditions. Nonetheless, lithium batteries coupled with solar power are maybe extra sensible, albeit with out the moment energy benefit of a gas cell.

Why Don’t We Have Gas Cells in Our Laptops?

A half-open Macbook.

On the time of writing, we don’t have laptops, smartphones, or another electronics on the mainstream market powered by gas cells. Even electrical vehicles, which have been a first-rate candidate for the expertise, use lithium-ion batteries.

One apparent purpose for that is that lithium-ion batteries have develop into a lot better than they have been within the mid-2000s when the thought of laptop computer gas cells gained some traction. Our electronics are additionally far more power-efficient. An Apple M1 MacBook Air or Professional will run anyplace between 17 to twenty hours on a full cost. To not point out that fast-charging expertise takes a lot of the ache out of topping up once more. We’ve reached the purpose the place the typical consumer isn’t hurting for extra battery life.

Battery expertise can be set to get dramatically higher. New supplies reminiscent of graphene and the potential of solid-state batteries and superior supercapacitors make the messy chemical soup nature of gas cells far much less interesting.

Gas cells are just too finicky and costly to exchange the batteries in our laptops. This was the case many years in the past when laptop computer batteries have been objectively terrible and it’s actually the case now when that expertise has erased a lot of the benefits gas cells would carry to the desk.

Nonetheless, considerably sarcastically, Apple has stored its personal patent for a hydrogen fuel cell power source alive, with patent purposes in 2010, 2015, and 2020. There are actually good use instances (reminiscent of fieldwork and army purposes) for laptop computer gas cells, however we’re considerably skeptical concerning the expertise changing present or future battery expertise for mainstream customers.

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