In theory, our electronic gadgets keep getting more portable. In reality, most of us are still tethered to the nearest wall outlet–and to whatever conventional energy sources, like coal power, our city or town happens to run on. Even rechargeable backup batteries suck power from the grid. Small solar panels, while promising, aren’t practical yet in everyday life.
Here’s an alternative: A pocket-sized fuel cell that can charge small electronics, like a smartphone or digital camera, for weeks. With the right kind of fuel–renewable LPG–it’s actually carbon neutral. The device is completely independent from the grid, so it can be used anywhere, like a backcountry hiking trail, a crowded cafe, or on an airplane.
“Nobody wants to carry heavy batteries with them,” says Sascha Kühn, founder and president of eZelleron, the German company making the device, appropriately called Kraftwerk (though it may conjure up visions of synthesizers, the word actually means “power station” in German). “Nobody wants to wait 10 hours until their backup power packs are charged up again. This belongs to the past.”
Kühn, who has a doctorate in fuel-cell technology, led Kraftwerk’s design. The gadget now has 27 patents. Kühn was driven by the idea that since electronics are now small enough to carry anywhere, we should actually be able to use them anywhere.
“The freedom to take your choice, to get into contact with your family when and wherever you want to, is a fundamental desire of all of us and an invaluable achievement,” he says. “Unfortunately this freedom is rather limited, because batteries cannot always deliver the necessary long-lasting power. And this challenge is growing because battery performance cannot keep pace with the growing power needs of smartphones and tablets.”
Kraftwerk weighs 200 grams when full, about the same as a cup of sugar. It can be filled with a tiny squirt of lighter fluid, but also runs on environmentally friendly renewable LPG, which is made from water and synthesized carbon dioxide.
Even running on lighter fluid, it may have a smaller carbon footprint than conventional power, because it’s so efficient. “It’s highly efficiently produced energy, right at the place where energy is needed,” says Kühn. “Thus limiting losses due to transmission or even storage of energy.”
Ultimately, the gadget can be scaled up to power larger electronics–and maybe someday everything in your home, like refrigerators. “Our fuel cells are designed as micro tubes, which can be stacked to nearly any device size,” Kühn explains. “We plan in fact to launch, after Kraftwerk, larger devices for laptops and even bigger applications.”
The pocket-sized version can also be useful in disasters, or in places where grid power is unreliable. “We know, on one hand, that there are hundreds of million people in the world with limited, interrupted or no access to electricity,” Kühn says. “And of course, take the recent East Coast blizzard threatening millions of people living in modern cities like New York or Boston. There’s nothing worse than finding yourself in an emergency and the batteries of your smartphone are empty.”
The company, which is now crowdfunding on Kickstarter, donates 12 devices to disaster relief for every Kraftwerk someone reserves.