Fuel cells - are we there yet?

Originally published 2006 in Atomic: Maximum Power Computing
Last modified 03-Dec-2011.


It's been the thick end of four years since I last wrote about fuel cell power.

Surely, now, there are some consumer fuel cells you can actually buy.


Well, no. Not really.

But that doesn't mean there's no news. Oh, no. There's news all the time.

Another laptop with a fuel cell on the back of it, shown at a computer expo but not on sale! News pieces from people who can't tell the difference between zinc-air batteries (as seen in hearing aids) and fuel cells! Yet more confusion about some gadget that appears to run on water, with the proud assistance of the usual crowd of loonies and scam artists who insist that they know how to run a car on it!

And, of course, the bane of the gadget blog reader's life: Design projects that look cooler than hell, but only actually exist as a non-working model, and will never be made.

The first successful consumer fuel cells will probably be general purpose run-and-recharge devices, with integrated power sockets so you can connect wall and car chargers or power supplies to them. I was, therefore, excited when I discovered the Voller Automatic Battery Charger, or ABC.

The gadget blogs were all talking about it in the present tense at the end of June 2006 (which was when I first wrote this piece for Atomic, and coincidentally also when the press release came out...), despite the fact that the only picture they had of it looked a lot like a 3D render.

But hey, the ABC looked like a better thought out product than most others I've seen. It even comes in 110 and 220V versionbs, both of which also have a cigarette-lighter and USB-power outlet. So, as the press release says, you can simultaneously charge an iPod, a laptop and a mobile phone. Or plenty more stuff, if you just plug a powerboard and/or cigarette lighter double adapter into the ABC's outlets.

Great! Let's buy one!

Needless to say, you can't.

When I first wrote this piece, in 2006, Voller had a long list of "Agents" on their site, almost all of whom did not in fact appear to be taking orders for any Voller products. The couple of resellers that did have a Voller device or two for sale didn't have the ABC. One of them listed the ABC's predecessor, the version 3 "VE100", which looks just like the ABC. But the specs are different, and Voller themselves say they don't make that model any more.

Now, half a year later, I've laboriously ploughed through the Agents list again (well, the ones with Web sites that I can read, anyway).

[It's now August 2008, and I'm giving this piece another little update. The Voller Agents page now lists no actual agents at all. There's a map you can click on... but nothing happens when you do. Entertainingly, the text above the map says "If you have any interest in our Emerald units please contact Voller Energy directly"; emphasis mine. I now return you to my findings in 2007, when Voller were at least alleging that people were selling their products.]

The ABC is, now, actually listed here and there. Sometimes without a price or any obvious evidence that the company ever expect to sell one, sometimes for a mere $US60,000 (also known as "Go Away!" pricing), but more plausibly for $AU8240. It's 320,000 Taiwan dollars here, which is about $US9700 at the moment.

Career gadget-hunters are familiar with this situation, including the freaky price variations. You're interested in the Acme Antigravity Belt, and the manufacturer has a big list of "distributors" and "dealers" on their Web site, but you know before you even look that this is actually just all of the people who've ever said "sure, send us one on commission and we'll see if we can sell it!", or signed up to be an "Agent", or just replied positively to a marketing e-mail.

Trying to find a "dealer" who actually seems to have the product for sale is a depressing process, involving many sites that do not mention the Acme name at all and some sites that don't even exist any more.

(The Voller Energy "Agents" program seems to verge on scam-hood, actually. They say the only way to become a non-exclusive "Agent", which status gets you some unspecified discount, is to buy a unit from them, and not sell it on for at least six months.)

This is all business as usual in the retail-fuel-cell ghost town.

I wrote, for instance, about Coleman's Powermate-branded Ballard fuel cell generator back in 2003. They press-released the heck out of that baby, but then forgot to ever actually sell it. It's gone from their product listings now.

[As of mid-2008, a search for 'coleman powermate "fuel cell"' gives a page on colemanpowermate.com, which belongs to Coleman, as hit number 2. Unfortunately, as I write this the whole colemanpowermate.com site is one big Invalid Hostname error.]

This just keeps happening over and over again. Someone announces a new and exciting fuel-cell power product (often in collaboration with Ballard), it wins meaningless awards at trade shows, and then it vanishes without trace. Lather, rinse, repeat.

I'm willing to believe that most of these companies, including Voller, can actually make plenty of fuel cells if they want to. But they don't. Because, to a first approximation, nobody wants the things.

A little digging into the specs and, yes, price tags, reveals why.

The VE100 V3 listed for something in the order of $US7200, and the ABC seems to be even more expensive. That's not the end of it, of course; you have to pay quite a bit extra for hydrogen fuel canisters, and for hydrogen to put in them. (If you buy the little metal-hydride canisters and have them shipped to you, they'll arrive with a useless helium fill.)

The "CP grade 99.99% pure hydrogen" you need to run the ABC or any other straight-hydrogen fuel cell is available from scientific gas suppliers. It shouldn't cost much more than $US100 to fill even a K-sized cylinder (those are the big ones, that weigh 61 kilos empty).

But your local welding supply place only has 99.5% pure hydrogen if they have any at all, and your very own H2 purifier - commercial-grade H2 in, superclean H2 out - will cost you another few thousand bucks.

(This also makes Voller's claims about reduced greenhouse gas emissions even more bogus than usual. Not only does the hydrogen for fuel cells probably come from steam reformation of petrochemicals - byproduct, carbon monoxide, which oxidises in the atmosphere to our old greenhouse friend CO2 - but the high level of purity the fuel cell needs means considerably more total energy needs to be expended, to make the hydrogen unusually clean.)

The ABC has 200-watt peak output, or 70 watts continuous (only 65W through the AC socket, though). Running it at 50 watts sucks up 1.4 sea-level litres of hydrogen per minute. A full K cylinder can hold 7419 litres of H2 (which makes it only six hundred and something grams heavier...), giving you 3.7 days of 50-watt operation, and a total of 4416 watt-hours.

Which sounds like a lot, until you realise that you can get more energy than that from three litres (0.8 US gallons) of petrol in a little pull-start Honda generator. OK, the generator's efficiency may suck if you're loading it with only 50 watts, but you can charge a battery from it at a higher rate and use the battery to run your gear when the generator's off, and still get away with six litres or less of fuel. That'll cost you, what, four US bucks? Versus $US100 for the hydrogen fill.

For only 50 watts, many people are likely to be better off with solar-charged batteries, anyway. It'll be cheaper to buy the few square metres of panels, the regulator and the batteries in the first place than a several-thousand-dollar fuel cell, and then you won't have to keep trucking hydrogen cylinders around.

(Incidentally, 4416 watt-hours worth of charged lead acid batteries only weigh about twice as much as a K-sized gas cylinder. And you can split the batteries up if you need to carry them around.)

Back in the cheap seats, modern small petrol and diesel generators are surprisingly quiet and clean, quite cheap to buy and, from most people's point of view, more than cheap enough to run. It'll cost you a lot to run a whole Western house off generator power, but the ABC doesn't approach that kind of power level.

You still, of course, are probably not itching to run a generator indoors (Option A: Run the exhaust outside, and possibly another hose for the intake. Option B: Asphyxiate), and they're wasteful if you only need to run a small load, and if you're a special-forces soldier deep in enemy territory who needs to recharge his sooper sekrit spy gear without being detected then, y'know, they may be unsuitable for you, too.

But fuel cells have further limitations of their own. The ABC, for instance, has an operating temperature range from 5 to 40 degrees C. If the fuel cell freezes it'll be ruined, so you're expected to leave the ABC in standby mode; if the temperature falls below 2 degrees, it'll then turn itself on just to keep warm, sucking up hydrogen with a total generation efficiency of precisely zero per cent.

Fuel cells are popular in aerospace applications, where light weight and relatively cool operation trump price (though they still need oxygen to run, so they're not ideally suited to the "space" part of "aerospace").

But there, I'm afraid, it looks as if they're darn well staying for the time being.

As a first attempt, the ABC would be great. But it's about the 20th attempt that's been proudly announced as a Hot New Product, and it still isn't anywhere near being worth buying, even if it's actually possible to do so.

Perhaps us nerds are just spoiled. We're used to everything being twice as fast and half the price by the time you get your new PC home from the shop. Consumer fuel cells seem to be developing at the speed of a normal technology.

I suppose that's OK, just this once. With any luck a real, honest-to-goodness, practical fuel cell system will arrive at some point. It'll presumably be direct methanol, not hydrogen. Direct methanol powered laptops are absolutely positively going to be on the retail shelves before the end of 2007! Promise!

[They, of course, weren't.]

While we're waiting, though, I really wish fuel cell companies would cool it with the meaningless press releases.

See also the Medis 24-7 Power Pack, another forgettable fuel cell.

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