Fuel On the Hill
The year 2009 marked a watershed moment in using fuel cells for consumer electronics. That was the year Toshiba introduced and — briefly — marketed its Dynario fuel cell–powered battery recharger. The Dynario quickly sold out of its test run of 3,000 units in Japan, and Toshiba chose not to bring it back to market. But the test proved the demand for similar products, says Kerry-Ann Adamson, a research director at technology-study firm Pike Research in London.

One problem with fuel cells, though, is creating them to comply with certain codes and standards, Adamson says. The Dynario ran on methanol, and other cells employ butane or similarly highly flammable fuels; getting those certified for all environments takes time. “We have to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that they’re safe to take on a plane,” Adamson says.

Some have already gotten the nod. This year, Lilliputian Systems of Wilmington, Mass., should be announcing the availability of a butane-powered fuel cell that can be carried anywhere, says Mouli Ramani, the company’s vice president of marketing and business development. Ramani says he’s flown more than a million miles with a certified model of their first product. “And I [display] it at every opportunity to show flight attendants and anybody else that it’s safe,” he says.

About the size of a deck of cards, Lilliputian’s initial product is a portable charger that uses replaceable butane-filled cartridges and can boost a cellphone’s dead battery up to 20 times when, say, all the available A/C outlets are taken. A single, recyclable Lilliputian fuel cell will run a phone normally for two weeks to a month. “You never have to worry about fighting for a plug at a crowded airport lounge ever again,” Ramani says.

In fact, Adamson is fairly certain that in a decade, fuel cells will be integrated into phones the way batteries are now. Fuel cells pack a lot more energy per cubic inch than batteries, so a handful of cartridges will allow travelers to go weeks without access to alternating current or a Radio Shack. Unfortunately, cost is an issue. It takes just a penny or two to recharge a cellphone battery using a plug-in wall charger. Enough methanol to charge a phone with the Dynario, on the other hand, costs about $1. And the device itself was $300. However, the final price on the Lilliputian charger hasn’t been decided yet, and its fuel cell will charge a phone for about 15 cents, Ramani says. And costs for the charger will plunge further as unit volume goes from thousands to millions, Adamson says. “In two to three years time, you’ll use it to power a Game Boy and it will be pocket money,” she says.