Tech Watch: Nukes In Your Yard and Fuel Cells In Your Pocket

Two companies are doing two very different things to address the energy problem in America. How about a mini-reactor giving your neighborhood nuclear power? Or would you like thin fuel cell chips to give your gadgets juice?

If there are two energy sources that folks aren't exactly comfortable with, it's hydrogen fuel cells and nuclear power. The first involves using and storing large amounts of highly explosive liquid hydrogen, and is reminiscent of that most menacing of atomic bombs. The second one calls to mind Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and, well, atomic bombs. But we might be well served to get over our fear of fission and hydrogen if we're to avail ourselves of the solutions of the future, two of which bring nuclear power and fuel cells uncomfortably close to home. More specifically, into your neighborhood, and into your pants.

The first device is a compact nuclear power plant about the size of a minivan that could power up to 20,000 homes, and run uninterrupted for 10 years without needing to be refueled. The energy modules were originally the brain-child of scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory, but have since been commercialized and developed by a company called Hyperion Power Generation. Hyperion announced this week that it is now taking orders for the mini-reactors, and will commence mass production within five years.

Hyperion claims that the diminutive power plants, which can be buried underground - out of sight, out of mind, as the saying goes - will generate electricity for about $0.10 a watt, anywhere in the world. That's greater than the average cost of residential electricity in the United States, but for areas with high-density energy needs and little space for electrical infrastructure, the Hyperion devices could be a good deal at $25 million each. Distributed over 10,000 homes, for example, the cost is only $2500 for an entire decade of electricity.

The plants are easily transported because of their small size, and can be plopped down in remote areas that don't currently have electricity available. They have no moving parts, and never require service or maintenance. The company says the device is incapable of “going supercritical,” or in lay-speak, melting down and killing everyone; if the enclosure is breached or a malfunction occurs, the fuel cools instead of suffering a run-away reaction. It's also not a terror risk, says the company; to enrich the fuel to weapons-grade, you'd need “nation-state resources.” After its ten years of fuel are spent, it produces a wad of waste about the size of a melon, which could theoretically be recycled into new fuel, or lobbed at your neighbor's place with a water-balloon launcher.

Hyperion says it already has 100 orders for its devices, mostly from oil and electrical utilities companies. The company plans to build 4,000 mini nuclear modules between 2013 and 2023, which may sound like wide distribution - unless compared to the potential market a new energy technology called Fuel Cell Sticker, made by a company called MyFC. Their fuel cells can fit inside cell phones, of which there are some 3.3 billion in the world, as of 2007.

Fuel Cell Stickers are ultra-thin hydrogen fuel cells that are malleable and foldable, and look something like sticks of gum with webbed, metallic facing. The small hydrogen packs could be molded to fit inside curved, irregularly-shaped mobile phone enclosures like the backplate of Apple's iPhone 3G, providing long-term battery power in a smaller form-factor than traditional lithium ion batteries.

The first actual product to incorporate the Fuel Cell Sticker technology is MyFC's 1636 Chip. It measures only 3mm thick at .2 ounces in weight, and has a maximum output of 0.75 watts; that's less than a RIM Blackberry battery, but multiple stickers can be layered inside a phone enclosure for more power. The 1636s should be entering commercial production soon, and will sell for reasonable, consumer-level prices according to CrunchGear. To see how electrochemical devices generate power, check out a good summary on MyFC's website. Let's hope that tiny fuel cells can't go “super critical” either - especially while one is in your pants pocket.

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