Changes afoot for mobile computing's Achilles' heel

Portable fuel cells may replace today's batteries.

The more things change in mobile computing, it seems, the more batteries have stayed the same.

With rapid gains in microprocessor technology, the variety of mobile devices offered in the past 15 years has expanded dramatically, to everything from cell phones that take pictures to personal digital assistants that rival last year's notebook PCs.

But the battery you buy today may last only slightly longer than the one you purchased 15 years ago. If anything, we may be recharging even more often these days.

'Batteries are several years behind in terms of dramatic changes,' said Sara Bradford, industry analyst for market consultant Frost & Sullivan of New York.

Charles Kriete, a mobility and wireless specialist for government reseller CDW Government Inc., a unit of CDW Corp. of Vernon Hills, Ill., said buyers often ask which devices use the least power. 'People have an understanding of the limits of battery technology and the fact there is nothing they can do about it,' he said.

One of the chief selling points of the BlackBerry e-mail devices made by Research in Motion Ltd. of Waterloo, Ontario, is that they consume relatively little power, Kriete said.

'Some of RIM's devices you can leave on routinely for a week and not have to recharge,' Kriete said.

The last big innovation in the field of rechargeable batteries came from the industrywide switch in the mid-1990s to lithium-ion batteries, which replaced most nickel-metal hydride batteries. They yielded about a 30 percent improvement in battery life.

Fuel on the hill

But mobile-device users can expect more improvement over the next decade.

Many industry observers agree that portable fuel cell technology, which produces energy by separating electrons from hydrogen molecules, will be a major force in coming years.

One developer is MTI MicroFuel Cells Inc. of Albany, N.Y., which is commercializing basic research carried out by the Energy Department's Los Alamos National Laboratory with funding from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

MTI plans to have its Mobion portable fuel cells ready for military use by 2005, according to company chief technology officer Shimshon Gottesfeld.

Such cells would last anywhere from two to 10 times as long as equivalent-sized batteries and could be recharged by adding more hydrogen, either by replacing a tiny canister or refilling the unit as one would a cigarette lighter, Gottesfeld said.

Government funding also is spurring another innovation, called energized structures.

The Missile Defense Agency awarded small-business innovation research grants to Boundless Corp. of Boulder, Colo., to develop energized structures. Made from carbon composites, they can be molded into pieces that are incorporated into a device or vehicle frame.

'They are batteries,' said John Olson, Boundless' vice president of technology. 'Depending on what size and shape you needed, we would make the battery in that size and shape.'

A structure weighing 1 kilogram could hold 200 watts of energy, or twice as much as a standard lithium-ion cell battery of the same weight, Olson said.

The company plans to offer the structures to manufacturers of spacecraft, unmanned aerial vehicles and other large machines. NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center has ordered a number of prototypes and is considering them for use on several dozen microsatellites.

Olson acknowledged that energized structures might not work on devices as small as cell phones. And fuel cell advocates acknowledge there are still hurdles to clear. All of which means that 20 years from now, we still might be looking for an outlet to recharge the phone.

About the Author

Joab Jackson is the senior technology editor for Government Computer News.


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