Consumer fuel cells to gain traction from drones?

February 09, 2016 // By Julien Happich
Cartridge-based hydrogen and methanol fuel cells have been around for a long time, with many demonstrators showcased by consumer electronics companies including Nokia, NEC, Toshiba, Fujitsu, and Hitachi.

Yet, while promising quick recharges and very long device autonomies, the technology never really took off in the consumer world, but this is about to change, according to Intelligent Energy.

The company licenses fuel cell platforms and technology IP for partners to produce the goods. Currently, it derives about 95% of its revenues from licencing its IP for large fuel cells (in the multiple kW range), such as those used to power remote telecom power sites (often replacing diesel power generators), or to be designed into cars.

But in 2014, the company also opened Consumer Electronics division with the launch of Upp, a portable hydrogen fuel cell power solution with re-usable fuel cartridges now available in Apple stores throughout the UK. The 210x40x48mm unit, which can typically deliver one week's worth of power to a smartphone, received “CE” and “CSA” certification, it was declared safe for carriage on aircraft and got the company some publicity at CES 2015.

Then in February, the company also signed a joint development agreement with an emerging smartphone OEM, aiming to develop embedded fuel cell technology for the manufacturer’s devices. The customer funded £5.25m project is expected to deliver embedded week-long mobile phone power.

So what makes fuel cells ripe for consumer electronics this time?

“Longer battery operation is a generic requirement across the mobile industry”, recognizes Dr. Henri Winand, Intelligent Energy’s Chief Executive Officer. “Nowadays, you’ll find mostly software differentiation across different smartphone hardware platforms, but consumers have all come to the realization that they are being held back by the battery lifetime. And while about 1.3 Billion of us have access to electricity, a larger portion of the world’s population lives off the grid”, he reminded EETimes Europe.

“It is not us, as a technology company, saying that we are going to push fuel cells to the consumer market, it is a handset OEM who came to us to find a solution” he notes.

“Secondly, the Upp USB-compatible fuel cell power backup unit that we sell across Apple Stores validates the need for longer energy autonomy. Every single time that a consumer buys a unit or a refill cartridge (RRP of £149 and £5.95 respectively) is a market validation of the product design and pricing strategy.”

“I could compare this to bottled water. What we’ve seen is that in the developed world, people are ready to pay £5.90 worth of energy per week if we offer them a sufficient degree of convenience (independence from the grid), whilst in developing countries, people pay from necessity, to conduct their business despite having difficult access to the grid. When most of a country’s GDP is traded through cell phone communications, no smartphone means no trade and no business”.