We’ve all been subject to the frustration of a depleted portable device battery. Whether it is praying that your cellphone holds out until you reach home, or coaxing your laptop to stay alive until you finish that presentation, we are all too familiar with the one-day-per-charge rule. But if Massachusetts-based Lilliputian Systems has any say in the matter, all this is bound to change.
Founded by former MIT researchers, the company has developed an alternative power source that promises several weeks of socket-free power from a single charge. Based on a new generation technology called Silicon Power Cell and licensed from MIT and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories, this system uses a highly-efficient solid oxide fuel cell and a microchip-based power generator that is fueled by recyclable high-energy butane cartridges. In short, a power source that delivers 5-10x more energy compared to current-day Lithium Ion technology, but which runs on cigarette lighter fuel. And all of this at a fraction of current-day portable battery costs. This technology is six times more efficient and with a lower carbon footprint compared to using a wall charger. It is also approved for use while traveling on board an aircraft. The actual device consists of a cigarette pack-sized box that contains a USB port, enabling it to charge a multitude of portable devices that use USB power-from smartphones to tablets to MP3 players and mobile gaming devices. While traveling, for example, this abrogates the need to lug multiple power connectors and cables for your various portable electronics. And one fuel cell charge provides several weeks of charging capability from a single recyclable cartridge.
In the long term, Lilliputian Systems will be creating three categories of personal power solutions: mobile power systems, integrated power systems, and embedded power systems-each of which targets a different category of portable consumer electronics. The company will supply the key components of this power source such as the generator chip, and will provide a reference design to system integrators and OEMs who will eventually utilize it in portable products. In May this year they signed an agreement with Brookstone-a US-based multichannel lifestyle retailer-for the marketing, promotion and sale of their portable fuel cell charging device. They claim the device should be publically available within a few months.
While the majority of the focus in the fuel cell arena is aimed at military applications–such as the work being done by companies like UltraCell–you might not be surprised that some of your favorite consumer electronics companies appear to be laying stakes in this arena: there was recent news of Apple filing for a patent that indicates possible use of fuel cells in their future devices, while RIM is on an equally aggressive patent application path.
Present day Lithium-Ion and Lithium Polymer technologies are already at the plateau of their performance envelope, and there doesn’t seem to be any sign of another breakthrough is their chemistry. In the estimated $50 billion portable power market, Fuel Cell systems certainly hold plenty of promise, and by ticking all the necessary checkboxes they read like a Holy Grail of portable power. If the manufacturing and distribution is done right, these new power technologies could trigger a whole new generation of multi-core, ultra-connected large screen portable devices that will sail through a week without needing to be plugged in.