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First Gadget-Charging Fuel Cell Isn’t a Taste of the Future

Fuel cells will one day power your car, your laptop, camera and cellphone, but until the day the tech matures enough to become fully integrated, a likely stopgap will be gadget power-booster devices like this new one from Medis Technologies.

Fuel cells will one day power your car, your laptop, camera and cellphone, but until the day the tech matures enough to become fully integrated, a likely stopgap will be gadget power-booster devices like this new one from Medis Technologies. It’s apparently the first on the market, and it’s sadly and strangely not a taste of the future.

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Fuel cells carry the promise of easily rechargeable and eco-friendly power, which is why their future looks so bright. But they come in different varieties, consuming different fuels with oxygen to create that power, and that’s where the new Medis device fails. It’s powered by sodium borohydride (NaBH4), instead of hydrogen or methanol like competing technologies use.

You may think explosive hydrogen and flammable and toxic methanol sound risky, but check out NaBH4’s safety list: It’s a powerful laboratory reagent that’s flammable and corrosive, will burn skin on contact, and is harmful if swallowed or absorbed through the skin. It also reacts vigorously with water.

That’s actually the process the Medis fuel-cell uses: It comes with a cartridge of reagents (water and NaBH4) that you squeeze to activate–the reagents mix, and produce power (and hydrogen gas as a by-product.) It’ll run for 40 hours and the charging assembly comes with a bunch of different connectors to let you juice-up USB-powered devices, cellphones, MP3 players and so on.

But the fuel cartridge isn’t recyclable or refillable, so it may end up as plastic waste in a landfill, which is a decidedly non-eco-friendly quality. The company is working to establish a recycling program for spent fuel packs, but it’s not in place yet.

So this appears to be a strictly single-use fuel-cell device, possibly useful for powering your gadgets if you’re on a weekend camping trip in the wild or as an emergency/disaster survival pack component. It’s got toxic fuel that comes in a non-refillable, non-recyclable package. And it costs around $35 for the gadget-charging version with tips (a new fuel pack without tips is $25) and around $50 for a version that comes with a flashlight.

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Kudos to Medis technologies for bringing the fuel cell to the consumer, but I’m actually looking forward to tiny methanol or hydrogen fuel cells, that you’ll be able to refill with a squirt from a fuel cannister–and they won’t corrode my leg if the gadget leaks in my pocket.

Update:  Medis has been in touch with us to describe and demystify the core technology of the fuel pack. Apparently it uses a “stabilized version” of the liquid borohydride (NaBH4) that’s “non-flammable, non-toxic and non-explosive.” It also doesn’t react adversely with water, so should the pack become damaged it wouldn’t be dangerous–a totally different situation to “pure” borohydride chemistry.

Furthermore there’re instructions detailed on the pack for customers to mail the spent product to a recycling facility.

After learning that, I’m actually pretty impressed with the sounds of the cell–it’d be great if others followed in Medis’ wake. 

 

[via The New York Times]

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