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Laptop Methanol Fuel Cells Promised This Week 249

Posted by timothy
from the wait-till-they're-in-vending-machines dept.
securitas writes: "Wired tells us that Germany's Smart Fuel Cell is about to ship the first methanol based fuel cells for laptops and other electronic devices. The company says a 120 milliliter fuel cell can power a 15W notebook for 10 hours, and you can refill it without shutting down."
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Laptop Methanol Fuel Cells Promised This Week

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  • by motox (312416) on Tuesday January 29, 2002 @07:18AM (#2918762) Homepage
    It's a Pit-stop
  • by blackguest (550895) <blackguest@blacB ... minus physicist> on Tuesday January 29, 2002 @07:19AM (#2918764)
    If only NT could stay up that long.
  • This is what we want - carry a SIGG flask [gear-zone.co.uk] around to top up your laptop. Add a charger outlet to let you charge your MP3 player, digicam, etc... while on the move and you have the ultimate roaming system.
  • Flamable? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Max von H. (19283) on Tuesday January 29, 2002 @07:23AM (#2918777) Homepage
    I wonder if they'll allow them on planes. Not that a few milliliters of methanol seem dangerous compared to the dozens of tons of kerozene you sit on... But it'd sure be nice to be able to play Quake on those long-haul flights!

    /max
    • Inflammable means flammable? What a country!

      -Dr. Nick
      • Re:Flamable? (Score:2, Insightful)

        by markmoss (301064)
        I believe this is something we can blame on the Romans -- somehow or other they created two very similar prefixes, one meaning "not" and the other meaning "very". So as they carried over into English, they are quite confusing:

        Inflammable = capable of burning very much
        Inadmissible = not admissible

        "Flammable" wasn't originally a word in English, but in the era of lawsuits and warning signs about obvious dangers, marking a gasoline tank as "inflammable" left the possibility of being misunderstood as "not flame-able". Or that the lawyers representing the estate of some idiot that lit a cigarette while standing next to the gas tank would claim in court that he read it that way... So the word "flammable" was coined. No english-speaker is likely to misunderstand that -- and now (in the US at least), they mark the things in Spanish too. (This just makes me wonder about the French-Canadians, Swedes, and Finns up here, or the Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, etc. in California -- is there room enough for warning messages in every language?)
        • > I believe this is something we can blame on the
          > Romans -- somehow or other they created two
          > very similar prefixes, one meaning "not" and
          > the other meaning "very". So as they carried
          > over into English, they are quite confusing:
          >
          > Inflammable = capable of burning very much
          > Inadmissible = not admissible

          Not quite; you had the prefix "in-", not, and the preposition "in", in, into. Hence, "inflammable", something that tends to burst *into* flames. The rest of your post, including the need to see to the safety of the illiterate, is correct, though.

          Chris Mattern
        • It seems you have no international experience. In the world outside of the US of A signs are in the forms of pictograms that don't need words.

          For example the international standard ISO 3864 is described as follows: The graphic-only approach communicates the safety label's message quickly and without the use of words. This is the preferred format in the European community due to the concentration of diverse languages.

          In the US the ANSI Z535.4 standard is in use and still includes lots of text.

    • Whether or not they'll allow these on airplanes depends upon the following:
      1. Fire hazard
      [Minimized due to the small amount of methanol, and, the fact that its contained in a cartridge. Hard to get at unless you destroy the cartridge]
      2. Can it be used as a cigarette lighter?
      [If cigarette lighters are allowed on planes now, then they'll allow these as well]
      3. Explosion risk
      [Possible pressure buildup and spark - however, given small size of methanol cartridge, the risk of explosion is very low, and, even if it did explode, its not likely to be a big explosion]

      There may be other issues, but I don't think that will prevent their use on planes. It may be, however, that before you can get on a plane, your fuel cells have to go through a chemical "sniffer" to make sure you're not bringing a cartridge of Sarin gas on board. Or you may have to power up your laptop with it to prove its a fuel cell and not a chemical storage tank.
    • by Rogerborg (306625) on Tuesday January 29, 2002 @11:54AM (#2919882) Homepage
      • I wonder if they'll allow them on planes.

      I'm sorry sir, your methyl alcohol fuel cell is a safety hazard. Can I get you some scotch to take your mind off that?

  • Methanol? (Score:3, Funny)

    by jsmyth (517568) <jersmyth@@@gmail...com> on Tuesday January 29, 2002 @07:25AM (#2918779) Homepage
    Doesh it *hic* mesh up your *hic* documentsh like *hic* I do when I'm dhrinking methanol *hic* ?
    • by jonelf (99217) on Tuesday January 29, 2002 @07:34AM (#2918803) Homepage
      I guess you couldn't care less about
      messing up your documents since drinking
      methanol makes you go blind. Alcoholic beverages like Bombay Sapphire contains ethanol.

      Don't drink and derive!
    • Nice try, if you were drinking real methanol, you couldn't see the screen. Even Metholated spirits hasn't actually contained any metho for years and years coz people would drink it and go blind- What you call alcohol scientists call ethanol. That's why distilling is illegal, get it right you get ethanol and drunk, fuck it up and you get methanol and you're dead/blind.
      • by CapsaicinBoy (208973) on Tuesday January 29, 2002 @09:03AM (#2919056)
        Methanol is by itself almost completely non-toxic; the danger arises from the metabolic breakdown products.

        When you ingest ethanol (aka grain alcohol), alcohol dehydrogenase (an enzyme)catalyzes the oxidation of ethanol to acetaldehyde. If you oxidize acetaldehyde, you get then get acetic acid, which can then be oxidized to carbon dioxide.

        Conversly, when you oxidize methanol (aka wood alcohol), you get formaldehyde. If you then oxidize that, you get formic acid. The formaldehyde and the formic acid are both toxic with formic acid being the more toxic of the two. The formaldehyde attacks the sensitive protein in the retina making you blind while the formic acid is what kills you.

        Because the rate limiting step in methanol oxidation is availability of alcohol dehydrogenase, the clinical treatment for methanol poisoning is, you guessed it, to give large amounts of ethanol. Because the alcohol dehydrogenase has a higher affinity for ethanol than methanol, giving you ethanol will keep the methanol from being catabolized. The "unprocessed" non-toxic methanol can then be cleared by the kidneys.

        Also, it should be noted that the prohibition on distilling has absolutely nothing to do with public safety. It is a taxation issue pure and simple. I suggest you pull out a history text and read about something called the Whiskey Rebellion.
        • antifreeze (Score:2, Funny)

          by CrazyDwarf (529428)
          With all that good information, I was surprised you didn't mention antifreeze. Years ago, antifreeze was made with ethanol. Farmers put antifreeze in their tractor tires to help keep them from having to refill the tires every time the weather changes.

          Now here's the funny part. People used to go looking for drinks in the farmers' tires. That wouldn't be too bad in itself, unless you're the farmer. But then a few years ago, they changed antifreeze to methanol, instead of ethanol. So the younger generation, upon hearing the older generations stories of drunken nights in fields, decides to go try it. Now we've got farmer Jones field full of blind, methanol poisoned high school students.

          I really get a kick out of stories like this. I really like those Darwin Awards, too, though. *shrug*
          • With all that good information, I was surprised you didn't mention antifreeze. Years ago, antifreeze was made with ethanol. Farmers put antifreeze in their tractor tires to help keep them from having to refill the tires every time the weather changes.

            There is also another alcohol used in anti-freeze. This is ethelene glycol or ethan-1-2-ol, considerably more toxic than either ethano or methanol.
        • Except there was no whiskey rebellion to me, since I'm australian, and you can't distill your own alcahol because too many people were fscking themselves up. It's perfectly legal to brew beer here and I assure you we drink more beer than spirits in Australia (NT drinks more beer/capita than anywhere in the world, yes including germany), so the tax argument doesn't hold up.
  • 15W notebook? (Score:2, Interesting)

    by NNKK (218503)
    Is 15W standard? The power supply for my laptop is 60W, is most of that just so it can recharge the battery faster? Seems like a 60W power supply is a waste for a 15W unit.
    • Re:15W notebook? (Score:2, Informative)

      by Slashamatic (553801)
      My notebook is a Dell [dell.com] Inspiron 7500 with LiIon batteries (14.5v 5400maH). The PSU can kick out a max of 70 watts, but the LiIon cells are rated at 28 watts charging current. Charging and operation are allowed at the same time (same as many other modern Notebooks).

      The actual Notebook can take around 26 watts or more, depending upon what you are doing with it, especially heavy when watching DVDs (constant DVD motion plus the CPU running at full blast for the software decoder).

      15 watts may be enough for a toy Notebook, but it ain't enough for mine!!!!!

    • The article says the 120ml cartridge is "enough to power a 15W notebook computer for 10 hours". I seriously wonder whether that 15W is realistic, considering most modern CPU's draw several times that at rated speed -- and you've also got disk drives and display. I suspect 150 Watt-hour is pretty similar to the capacity of the larger laptop batteries. Of course, you could carry a dozen refills in less space and weight than one spare battery...

      The other question is how the paranoiac, irrational, and just plain stupid airport security people are going to react to that cache of flammable material. Methanol is pretty similar to cigarette lighter fluid (for the old-style lighters with wicks), and should be safer than butane. But IIRC there are about 28ml in an ounce, so 120 ml = 4 ounces, which could make a bigger fire than you'd want to deal with in close quarters. I think the Russians in Stalingrad would tackle a German tank with an 8 ounce soda bottle filled with gasoline -- three methanol cartridges would be about equivalent in energy.

      Of course, another idea would be to trim back the bloatware so you didn't need such a powerful CPU or a continuously spinning HD...
  • Infrastructure (Score:5, Insightful)

    by adamjone (412980) on Tuesday January 29, 2002 @07:30AM (#2918795) Homepage

    The infrastructure for methanol will have to be vastly improved before a methanol fuel cell battery will ever be successful in laptops. I work as an integrator, and I take my laptop on-site for a lot of the jobs that I do. Most days on-site I work for 10 hours or longer on a system, carrying my laptop from place to place. The batteries drain, but my two batteries usually have the life to last through the day. When I get back to the hotel at night, I can plug into any outlet to fuel up the batteries.

    With the methanol fuel cell, I would need to carry extra charges with me. On a week long trip out of state, that can be a lot of charges. With the current security measures in place at most airports, I doubt that I would be able to take them on the aircraft. Now I need to rely on the local shops to carry the fuel cell cartridges, which may or may not happen, depending upon my location.

    Also, if I'm staying in a hotel, charging my batteries is free. If I use the fuel cell, I could get charged $3 per day or more for using my laptop. That's not much if I can write it off as a business expense, but if it is for my two week vacation to Alaska, it can get fairly expensive.

    I prefer the convenience of using chemical batteries. I can charge from anywhere, and in a lot of cases, for free.

    • Good for you.

      However there's nothing to suggest you can't use both, right?

      Batteries do tend to be removeable and I am sure most of us run laptops off the mains most of the time, but if like me you go roaming about doing stuff like wardriving a 3 hour battery life just doesn't cut it.

      I will be one of the first in the queue to get some methanol action...
    • Re:Infrastructure (Score:3, Informative)

      The infrastructure for methanol will have to be vastly improved before a methanol fuel cell battery will ever be successful in laptops.

      You can buy it by the gallon in any hardware store or by the 55 gallon drum at a paint wholesaler. It's dirt cheap. It sounds like this particular design takes pre-filled cartridges, but I'd bet it's not long before someone comes up with a way to refill them (see inkjet cartridges).
      • If it can be re-engineered for 70% isopropyl alcohol, one needs to go no further than their corner grocery store, pharmacy or Wal-mart. But then again, Wal-mart sells quart cans of methanol in their paint department. No problem.
    • Re:Infrastructure (Score:3, Insightful)

      by benbob (554908)
      a lot of people seem to be missing the point on this one - maybe i'm wrong - but it seems to me that the most exciting aspect of this emerging technology is the fact that it is green! plugging into an existing electrical outlet may seem convenient and clean but how much carbon dioxide was pumped into the atmosphere to produce those watts? As for comments about how it is free to charge your laptop in your hotel room i'm sure that the hotelier has adjusted their per night rate accordingly ;) On the point about battery life, i doubt very much that 2 chemical batteries would have lasted for a 10 hour day even as recently as 5 years ago and would feel pretty confident that in the not too distant future fuel cells will be able to outperform, outlive and outlast chemical batteries. As far as infrastructure is concerned, i'm not! (concerned that is!) hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe and if i can expand on an idea from an earlier posting, instead of farting into the battery why not piss into it instead? or refill from any of the countless other sources of hydrogen? (shit! I hope i'm not sounding like a hippie?)
      • but it seems to me that the most exciting aspect of this emerging technology is the fact that it is green! plugging into an existing electrical outlet may seem convenient and clean but how much carbon dioxide was pumped into the atmosphere to produce those watts?

        What actually matters is how much of the carbon dioxide is from "fossil carbon". Burning wood is more "green" than burning coal. Also you can probably make methanol from crude oil, which isn't very green at all.
        • Burning wood is more "green" than burning coal.

          Don't know about coal, but burning wood sure isn't green... Of course it produces CO2, but it also releases SO2 (think acid rain) and (sorry I only know the french term, but it's probably just a word permutation for english) "Hydro-carbure aromatique polycycliques", which are toxic.
      • How is methanol green? Oxidation of methanol produces carbon dioxide just like standard power production. Granted it is somewhat more efficient, but it is not any more "green" than the alternative.
    • Re:Infrastructure (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Medievalist (16032)
      /.
      Good points, proving that the technology won't be for everyone until the local chemist shop (drugstore or druggist to us Norte Americanos) starts carrying methanol cartridges.

      But hey, not everybody can get inkjet packs either - yet inkjets are still eminently marketable.

      At 33 cents a gallon USD, vendors can easily put a 1000% markup on the refill cartridges. That prospect should quickly take care of the infrastructure problem in capitalist markets! Eventually, you might see business-class hotels keeping methanol on hand in the same way they stock coffee and toothpaste.
      --Charlie
    • Re:Infrastructure (Score:3, Insightful)

      by PhotoGuy (189467)

      Also, if I'm staying in a hotel, charging my batteries is free. If I use the fuel cell, I could get charged $3 per day or more for using my laptop. That's not much if I can write it off as a business expense, but if it is for my two week vacation to Alaska, it can get fairly expensive.

      I don't know how you're getting to Alaska, or where you're staying when you're there, but I'm guessing $3/day is paltry as compared to other expenses.

      (Unless you're driving from Whitehorse and staying in a tent, that is...)

      Seriously, though, $3 as a starting point isn't too bad, and it will only drop. Don't forget that those $300 batteries you buy for your laptop don't last forever; if you ran them from full charge to empty 100 times, I'm sure they'd have a good portion of their useful life used up. I'm assuming fuel cells will have a far longer duty cycle, as long as more fuel is supplied.

      I had a Dell, less than 6 months old, whose two expensive batteries are now useless. Maybe a manufacturing defect, but try convincing Dell of that.

      -me
  • by JohnPM (163131) on Tuesday January 29, 2002 @07:31AM (#2918798) Homepage
    "There is no way hydrogen is ever going to be allowed aboard an airplane," Stefener said.

    I think this is an overly dismissive statement. Methanol itself is really just a hydrogen storage method. You throw in some carbon to stabilise the hydrogen and as a result, you produce carbon dioxide when the fuel is used up.

    There's a lot of work going on to find non-chemical storage methods for hydrogen, such as sponges or matrices that would be explosion-proof. There's no reason to believe that this won't eventually succeed in a safer and more efficient fiel cell than methanol based ones. It will just take longer.
    • by leuk_he (194174) on Tuesday January 29, 2002 @07:53AM (#2918847) Homepage Journal
      The only reason methanol(the stuff that makes you go blind) is (will be?) allowed on a airplaine is because the tax free shops sell a lot of alcohol(the stuff that makes you go silly). And lets just asume a bottle of >40% whiskey has the same chemical properties as 100% bottle of methanol.

      This will all end when a big plane crash and high % alcohol drink go in the same heading on a newspage.

      It is not allowed now to use any electronic device during start or landing. Why? Just in case probably. It is never allowed to use any device that uses an antenna? why? maybe because they can not tell if it is receiving (mostly harmless) or sending (interfering with cockpit/flight controls).

      As security will become more important less and less bagage will be allwod in the passenger area. hydogen or methanol will be less of an issue.

      Image a refill of either fuel onboard an airplane. or worse, a refill in an airplane where smoking is allowed. Or worse (in a few years), a refill of a taiwan produced laptop that has been dropped a few times.

      also see: [slashdot.org]
      http://slashdot.org/science/02/01/02/1534252.sht ml
      • Evil Antennae (Score:3, Informative)

        by fm6 (162816)
        It is never allowed to use any device that uses an antenna? why? maybe because they can not tell if it is receiving (mostly harmless) or sending (interfering with cockpit/flight controls).
        Perhaps you're thinking of the ban on cell phones? That has nothing to do with safety. A cell uses up bandwidth on every node that's in line-of-site. So someone in the air strains the system more than someone on the ground. If passengers were allowed to use their phones, local systems would get saturated every time a plane flies over them.

        We seem to be developing some weird urban legends relating to electronic devices. My cable TV company ordered me not to install an FM splitter on my own -- if not done by a "trained technician" (snicker), it might cause airplanes to fall out of the sky. Many gas stations now ban people from talking on their cells while fueling, because somebody told someone that they'd heard somewhere that a gas station was destroyed when sparks from a cell ignited the fumes. (Think about it, what has more circuitry, a cell phone or a car?) And of course, flight attendents have all kinds of vague safety rules they have to enforce, most of which they don't actually understand. So you can't use your computer if it has a CD drive, because somebody thinks lasers are an issue. And somebody decided "anything with an antenna"...

        • Re:Evil Antennae (Score:2, Informative)

          by leuk_he (194174)
          Perhaps you're thinking of the ban on cell phones?
          No i was thinking about the rule "No antenna".

          But if you put a cell (GMS 900/1800)phone next to an FM radio you KNOW it disturbs the radio signal when it rings! no urbam myth there. It is about safety. And since receivers are far away they use the peek wattage.

          local systems would get saturated every time a plane flies over them.
          Are you talking about GSM (900Mhz/1800Mhz)phones? this one is COMPLETELY new to me.

          About the use of portable computers on airplanes. I know in the beginning of the portables the screens of the portables causes radio interference.
          • No i was thinking about the rule "No antenna".
            Is this something that's actually documented somewhere, or just something a flight attendent told you?
          • local systems would get saturated every time a plane flies over them.
            Are you talking about GSM (900Mhz/1800Mhz)phones? this one is COMPLETELY new to me.

            Hmm, Leuk_he you need to read the conditions of use of your phone!
            It is not only the aviation rules that for reasons of aviation safety ban the use of phones on board planes, it's also the telco's that threaten you with loosing your subscription when you use it (the cell phone) from a plane and thus upsetting the cellular system.
            You do know how the cellular system works I hope...

        • Perhaps you're thinking of the ban on cell phones? That has nothing to do with safety. A cell uses up bandwidth on every node that's in line-of-site. So someone in the air strains the system more than someone on the ground. If passengers were allowed to use their phones, local systems would get saturated every time a plane flies over them.

          Unless you install a cell in the aircraft... Which is probably less kit than "Sky phones", since you don't need to provide handsets and credit card readers.
        • Perhaps you're thinking of the ban on cell phones? That has nothing to do with safety. A cell uses up bandwidth on every node that's in line-of-site. So someone in the air strains the system more than someone on the ground. If passengers were allowed to use their phones, local systems would get saturated every time a plane flies over them.

          Although that may be true, the ban on cell phones is due to the fact that airplane-tower communications are all done in AM, and are therefore quite susceptible to EMI, especially if it is close by.

          My cable TV company ordered me not to install an FM splitter on my own -- if not done by a "trained technician" (snicker), it might cause airplanes to fall out of the sky. Many gas stations now ban people from talking on their cells while fueling, because somebody told someone that they'd heard somewhere that a gas station was destroyed when sparks from a cell ignited the fumes. (Think about it, what has more circuitry, a cell phone or a car?)

          I think you mean an RF splitter, and yes, a splitter not properly installed can give off more EMI than is allowed by the FCC, and part of the reason for the FCC rules is to prevent interference with airplane communications.

          Although a cell phone causing a spark that ignites a gas station is dubious, I could see a cell phone ban in gas stations due to the inattentiveness caused by them. Someone somewhere probably drove off with the gas nozzle still in his tank, ripped it off, and caused an explosion because he/she was talking on his cell phone and not paying attention.

          So even though the reasons have been exagerated, there is a grain of truth to them. And yes, a cell phone has far more circuitry in it than a car, if you mean length of conductive material. Cars certainly have more power running through them though.

          • I think you mean an RF splitter, and yes, a splitter not properly installed can give off more EMI than is allowed by the FCC, and part of the reason for the FCC rules is to prevent interference with airplane communications.
            Well, specifically it was an RF splitter where one of the outputs was two screws, suitable for connecting to FM antenna wire. (The cable system provides signals for about a dozen FM radio stations.) The had previously connected it for me. There was another connector that looked like it was meant to ground the whole thing. I couldn't remember if it had originally been connected to anything, so I called them to ask if it was important. They warned me in no uncertain terms not to touch any of my cables, or risk dire aviation disaster.

            Which is obviously silly. If every loose CATV connection were an aviation hazard, September 11 would be happening daily!

            Someone somewhere probably drove off with the gas nozzle still in his tank, ripped it off, and caused an explosion because he/she was talking on his cell phone and not paying attention.
            You're assuming it happened at all [darwinawards.com].
            And yes, a cell phone has far more circuitry in it than a car, if you mean length of conductive material.
            Huh? How so? Does your car have fewer integrated circuits than your cell? Must be a really old car!
  • Recharging (Score:2, Insightful)

    by 0123456789 (467085)

    Hmm, the big drawback that I can see is the cost (article quotes $3-5) and equally importantly convenience of refilling the fuel cell.

    Good luck to them though.

  • by billwashere (167019) on Tuesday January 29, 2002 @07:37AM (#2918809)
    Ok, fine methanol works as a safe hydrogen storage method, but I was under the impression that fuel cells use hydrogen AND oxygen to create electricity and as a byproduct create H2O.

    Where does this water go? Does it evaporate or am I going to have to take my laptop for a pee?

    --
    billwashere

    • Maybe some of the waste heat from the fuel cell will be used to evaporate the water. Maybe the water will be drained to the CPU heatsink, which will evaporate it. I doubt that you'll be left with a wet spot in your lap...
    • /.
      Your batteries also produce waste chemicals as they generate electricity to run your devices. Where do those chemicals go? Think about it.

      The DMFC technology doesn't need cooling to the degree that other laptop parts do - in fact Li-Ion batteries might get hotter than a DMFC cell, according to the inventors.

      I wonder why the article doesn't talk about traditional recharging from a wall outlet? As I understand it, DMFC is an outgrowth of PEM technology, and generic PEM cells can be "run backwards" to recreate their fuel mix - much like a traditional battery, but with the additional requirement of avoiding carbon poisoning of the membrane.

      --Charlie
      • The synthesis of methanol is very exothermic. It would be a challenge to recover a significant portion of this waste heat AND remain compact and affordable.

        I'm sure there are other reasons this process isn't reversed, and someone who knows more chemistry than me could probably go into depth.

    • Well, given it's pure water and how dry aircraft are, I think you'd drink it.
  • by Zergwyn (514693) on Tuesday January 29, 2002 @07:38AM (#2918812)
    Now this is a situation that I'm sure airlines will love: business passengers now wanting to carry little bottles of fuel instead of spare batteries for their portables. This will become even worse if cells arrive that run off of pure hydrogen-"PEM (proton exchange membrane) fuel cells that run on hydrogen." This technology, should it be cheap enough, will get very popular very quickly(who wouldn't love to have a 10 our notebook life that can be extended without shutdown). But I wonder what the policy will be? Ten hours should be plenty for any flight, so maybe airlines will just say that any refills can't be in carry-on bags.

    The other problem is that planes are closed environments. Just as you can't smoke on a plane, it seems possible that any emmisions given off by fuel cells other then water vapor might also cause them to be banned. It may be that the battery won't be abandoned just yet.

    • Ten hours should be plenty for any flight...

      And 640 K should be enough for anybody. You don't do much international travel, do you?

      L.A. to Sydney (Qantas): 14 hours.
      New York to Hong Kong (Continental): 16 hours.
      Chicago to Hong Kong (United): 15 hours.
      Singapore to London (Singapore Airlines): 13 hours-- somewhat longer if you go the other way.
  • by af_robot (553885) on Tuesday January 29, 2002 @07:40AM (#2918819)
    "...With just a brisk pump of your foot, you will never worry about a dead battery again. With just a few pumps of the "STEPCHARGER" you can instantly begin to charge your laptop, cellphone, video camera and much more"
    Homepage [aladdinpower.com]
    Image 1 [aladdinpower.com]
    Image 2 [aladdinpower.com]
    • The Stepcharger product page says it's "Coming October 2001", and the site hasn't been updated in a while. Look closely at the product picture, and you'll see that the cords are tied together with not a twistie, not a ziptie, but good old electric tape. Methinks the product doesn't get quite as much use (or investor interest) as you might think.
  • Creating MORE Waste (Score:2, Interesting)

    by adamjone (412980)

    One of the main thrusts behind developing fuel cells is how clean they are. The only exhaust from the process is water. This is great! However, if the methanol charges for the fuel cells are not rechargeable themselves, we will be adding a MORE exhaust to the environment, in the form of the disposed charger. Depending on how the charger is constructed, this can lead to toxic heavy metals breaking down in the earth.

    When charging a standard chemical battery, we rely on the cleanliness of the source powering the outlet. Perhaps this technology might be better applied on a larger scale, such as powering an office building, or a small town.

    • The methanol cartridges are simply little tanks, I'm sure there won't be anything toxic in them. Probably it will be a flexible plastic bottle, which isn't that great a thing in land-fills either. And since they were going to be selling these little bottles with a few cents worth of methanol for about $3, I expect you'll see refill kits on the market real fast -- that is, a big plastic bottle of methanol, plus a syringe or whatever to get it into the cartridge and something to seal the cartridge up again.

      By the way, weren't the old wick-type cigarette lighters fueled with something like methanol?
    • First of all, burning a methanol fuel cell will create CO2 and H20. CH3OH is what methanol is, but that is not what I really want to say.

      You say:
      When charging a standard chemical battery, we rely on the cleanliness of the source powering the outlet.

      You have to consider though that when charging a battery, you have to put a LOT more power into it when you get out of it.
      Plus, when you burn something, only 30-40% of the energy contained in coal or gas can get converted into electricity. With a fuel cell, you are turning the energy directly into electricity in the way of a chemical reation and you get figures without looking it up, so I may be wronng, along 90% or more.

      Another plus is that methanol occurs abundently on the earth. Methane gets produced almost everywhere, add a bit of water to that and let the reaction happen over time, you get methanol. You don't need electricity to create it.

      So it is actually quite clean, except for the disposable plastic containers. But if these can be reused, then it's a big environmental plus.
  • We've just made rough estimates here and it seems that the cells could have some 20 to 30 per cent efficiency - not bad.

    10 hours of 15 watts is 150 watt-hours, cca 540 kJ.

    120ml of methanol burned means about 500kcal of energy - about 2 MJ max retrievable by burning.

    This does indeed look nice.

    • 1 KWh goes for around a dime where I live. So at 0.15 KWh from 120ml of methanol (based on your calculations), the equivalent power-utility provided electricity would cost 1.5 cents. If we assume the methanol goes for about a dollar a gallon, then 120ml (roughly 1/24th of a gallon) would cost 4 cents. That comes out to about a quarter per KWh if you use the methanol fuel cell. That's pretty similar to solar costs.

      Hmmm. That's too bad. I was envisioning a massive refitting of the world's power delivery infrastructure.

    • How does that compare to ordinary batteries? Remember, the 70-80% that gets wasted becomes heat. How hot do these things get?

  • Better use in cars (Score:2, Interesting)

    by houston_pt (514463)
    Right now the cost of these things is too big, but if they manage to really break into the battery market, it will probably go dow with mass production. Then maybe, as stated in this article [wired.com] also from wired, we can start seein real electric cars...
    No gas, just methanol, 33 cents a gallon...
  • by marko123 (131635) on Tuesday January 29, 2002 @07:54AM (#2918851) Homepage
    If so, I can eat airplane peanuts on my Melbourne to London flight and power my laptop with a strategically placed tube from my MethPort to my... well, if you are here, you've got an imagination...
  • Coleman Alternative (Score:2, Informative)

    by adamjone (412980)

    I recall an earlier [slashdot.org] Slashdot article discussing the Coleman [colemanpowermate.com] portable fuel cell generator. This would seem like a better solution for the laptop user, as you still have the option to charge from a standard wall outlet, but if you are in the field you could carry a resevoir of methanol and the Coleman for recharging in the wild.

  • by hyrdra (260687) on Tuesday January 29, 2002 @07:55AM (#2918856) Homepage Journal
    As others have mentioned, the availability of the fuel for these fuel cells is what is going to kill or break it. I wouldn't much mind filling up my laptop while I pump my gas, as long as it only costs me 33 cents extra. You just know if this technology takes off the methanol industry will recognize the demand and increase their bulk prices to be more expensive in smaller quantities. That's how it was with gas and oil when the car became mainstream.

    It's going to be a tough haul convincing consumers, especially because most don't see that they *are* acutally paying something when they plug in their laptop or cellphone to charge. You also can't beat the distribution of electrical outlets. There may be a fuel cell depot at every gas station and news stand, but I doubt there will be one right beside your bed.

    Personally, I'm still holding off on my hydrogen from air bit, or burning oxygen for fuel. We have plenty of "fuel" in the air, why not use it? And what about energy from plain old H2O we've been hearing about? Burn both the Hydrogen and Oxygen and you have no waste.

    Ultimatly, we will have to see. For now I would be for a hybrid battery/fuel cell slot system where you can get the instant fill-up when you need it, but still not be left in the dark when the minimart in All Pains, Michigan doesn't cary your fuel cell brand.
  • 15W? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Howie (4244) <howie@thing[ ]om ['y.c' in gap]> on Tuesday January 29, 2002 @08:07AM (#2918876) Homepage Journal
    can power a 15W notebook for 10 hours,

    Anyone know what the typical notebook draws? A brief simpleminded look at my Tosh suggests more than 15W... (label on bottom says 19V, 3.5A. Therefore power is 19x3.5?)
  • Laptop Methanol Fuel Cells Promised This Week
    Riiiiight. That's what my hardware vendor promised me last week, and the year before. This is the same guy who told me to invest my savings in Enron.

    I'm still waiting for my year-2000-model flying car...

  • by joshv (13017) on Tuesday January 29, 2002 @08:20AM (#2918917)
    I can reliable get 5-6 hours with my extended life battery on my vaio under heavy usage. Under typical usage it would go 10 hours.

    If battery usage were really an issue with most laptop users, manufacturers could easily hit the 10 hour mark with more efficient/dimmer backlights and underclocked processors (no one needs 1GHz in a laptop anyway).

    The problem is that its a rare laptop user that isn't far from an outlet. Sure, some people want to take a jaunt down to the beach to work on The Great American Novel for 10 hours - but those people are hardly enough to provide a strong market for fuel cells in laptops.

    -josh
  • by Salamander (33735) <jeff.pl@atyp@us> on Tuesday January 29, 2002 @08:48AM (#2919011) Homepage Journal

    A lot of people don't seem to've noticed that this unit won't exactly be convenient to carry around. Their 25W prototype is 120x160x170mm (5"x6.5"x7") and 2.8kg (5lb)! That's less than a large desktop-equivalent laptop but almost double the weight of some lightweight models. I don't know how many road warriors will really want to triple their carry weight and pay extra money for a few extra hours of runtime. It will probably seem much more convenient and cost-effective to get one of those LiPoly external batteries or something.

    • I don't know how many road warriors will really want to triple their carry weight and pay extra money for a few extra hours of runtime.

      I would, even if it reduced the runtime. This is the first step in getting fuel cells accepted as mass-market products. If they can successfully break into one market, then they have a chance at another (e.g., fuel cell automobiles). Anything I can do to speed that process along is great.

      • But how much does your purchase really help that process along? Product revenue is not really much of a factor right now; any company in this space is still getting the vast majority of their funds on a research/speculative basis. The only "point" to selling a product at all right now is:

        • To prove that all the manufacturing kinks have been ironed out, the product can pass whatever certification it needs, etc.
        • To get attention, which might attract either more research-stage funding or (much less likely) the attention of some company who will buy several thousand units based on some unique need (which will get even more attention, and so on.

        My point is that individual purchases don't really help much with either of those. If you're serious about promoting a technology, there are better ways than to become part of a trivial revenue stream that probably costs the company more in infrastructure than they actually get out of it. Write your congressmen, donate to advocacy groups or relevant research labs, go to work for one of these companies, put banners on your website...any of these probably do more to promote the technology than actually buying anything. When the products reach the point that they offer a compelling value proposition compared to existing products based on earlier technologies, the dynamics will change, but buying what is still basically an inferior product (whatever promise it represents for the future) is IMO not very effective.

        This is not meant as a flame or criticism. If you still feel that there's some value - even if it's just a philosophical point - in actually buying one of these, more power to you. Heh. I'm just trying to point out some reasons why it might not be any more than a gesture.

  • Outlets? (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Ozan (176854)
    Wouldn't it be more practical to equip passenger seats in planes with outlets? Or where else you can't find one?
  • by DrXym (126579) on Tuesday January 29, 2002 @09:16AM (#2919117)
    It's interesting that companies intend to make tamper-proof cartridges and sell them for $3 to $5 when the raw ingredients sell for cents.


    It sounds like just like razors and razorblades - sell a cheap razor requiring proprietary razorblades and lock-in your consumers to your brand.


    Until companies snap out of this mindset I don't see the technology taking off. You can still make a massive profit by selling them for a buck each or even making refillable ones and your customers will love you for it. The first company to get a clue is likely to see their sales rocket.

  • Why would I want to pay $3 to "charge" my battery when I can plug into any electric outlet and get a charge for free? Hexk, I can usually find an outlet in the airport waiting rooms and charge up while I'm waiting for my delayed flight. What is the benefit here?
  • Can someone comment on why these fuel cells use methanol instead of isopropyl alcohol? Is it a matter of efficiency, or is the reaction not acceptable for some reason (e.g., byproducts, manufacturing process)?

    Isopropyl is much more easily available (most hotel gift shops even carry it, not to mention every grocery and drug store). If the fuel cells were consumer refillable with isopropyl, they would be accepted by the market much more easily.
    • They should really make them run on any hydrocarbon - kinda like diesel engines that in a pinch will run on about any crap you care to put in there.

      If you want top MHz for game playing then top your fuel cell up with funny car fuel. If you're just doing word processing, then drink a couple of beers and pee in it instead.
  • Number of points (Score:4, Informative)

    by horza (87255) on Tuesday January 29, 2002 @09:57AM (#2919297) Homepage
    I thought I'd wrap up a number of points in one post rather than make several replies:

    "Also, if I'm staying in a hotel, charging my batteries is free."

    It's not free, the hotels expect you to do it and build it into the cost. If methanol becomes popular with travellers, the hotel will pop down to the hardware store, buy a couple of gallons of methanol, and offer that free on tap to guests too.

    "This will become even worse if cells arrive that run off of pure hydrogen-PEM (proton exchange membrane) fuel cells that run on hydrogen"

    All PEM fuel cells run on hydrogen. Methanol based fuel cells simply break down the methanol into hydrogen and its constituent parts before it hits the PEM.

    "However, if the methanol charges for the fuel cells are not rechargeable themselves, we will be adding a MORE exhaust to the environment, in the form of the disposed charger."

    You don't recharge a methanol cell, you just squirt in more methanol to replace what has been used up.

    "Ok, fine methanol works as a safe hydrogen storage method, but I was under the impression that fuel cells use hydrogen AND oxygen to create electricity and as a byproduct create H2O. Where does the water go?"

    Methanol is 50% oxygen, 37.5% carbon and 12.5% hydrogen. So yes water will be produced and there must be some drainage tap (so you will have to take your laptop for a pee on the plane). There will also be carbon deposits you will have to dispose of. I wonder also how often the PEM has to be changed, as carbon will clog it up if not effectively filtered out.

    There are plenty of fuel cell articles at Future Energies [futureenergies.com], including how a fuel cell is heating my local swimming pool! Check it out.

    Phillip.
  • --Who farted?

    --No one. It's just my Inspiron.

  • "sniff sniff... what is that Smell?"

    "my laptop, I ran out of regular methanol so I found a natural source.... did you know that pig farms capture and store the methan gas from the pix excrement?"

    I can see the mother earth news neophites are gonna havbe fun with this!
  • by WyldOne (29955)
    I can see it now at HardOCP:

    I just modded my laptop, not only does it have a clear case, a liquid cooled CPU but I put on a 4 barrel micro-holly carb with a supercharger on on the fuel cell and MAN does that baby purr.

    With this puppy I can whip any ground based gamerw while in flight. Just kick it into overdrive!
  • by tuxlove (316502)
    What do you wanna bet that fuel cell-powered laptops will be banned from airlines because of their volatility and possible use as a weapon? 120 ml of methanol is enough to start a reasonable sized fire, or perhaps even enough to be used in some sort of explosive device. That would be kind of ironic, because long flights are when you'd most want the longevity provided by a fuel cell.
  • I would be more impressed if they can improve current technology to the point that laptop batteries could compete with fuel cells in the "total power" department. For me, it's far easier to plug a laptop into any available wall outlet to juice it up. With newer batteries, you can even get 3 hours worth of juice off an hour of charging.

    Whereas with liquid fuel, I'd have to worry about extra sloshing out, easier combustion and availability (not to mention price).

  • Can existing laptops using fuel cells later on when it becomes affordable?

    That would be awfully nice if we can.
  • I'm generally more trusting of corporations than a lot of folks that hang out here. But in the case of banning cell phone usage on airplanes, I can't help but believe the interest is at least partly related forcing people to use the horribly expensive SkyTel system on board, instead of their relatively cheap cell phone time.

    I can just see them pulling the same thing with fuel cells. Under the guise of "safety," they'll make more bucks by banning fuel cell refilling, forcing you to plug into their special outlets (or use their special "safe" fuel cell fuel) for a fee. Watch for it :-)

    (I just wish the airlines would focus upon making money through transportation, and making that a pleasurable experience so do more of it, rather than gouging us every step of the way on extras. Heck, you have our money for the ticket, make us happy with a few cheap extras, and we'll be back for another ticket.)

    -me

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