Dr Sukhvinder Badwal's CSIRO research team is currently developing a compact,lightweight battery that could power a laptop computer for up to 24 hours, or a mobile phone for up to a month, before requiring a recharge. This lightweight battery infact, is not a battery at all, but a tiny, polymer-electrolyte membrane (PEM) fuel cell that
produces electricity electrochemically, by reacting hydrogen or methanol with oxygen.
The reaction reproduces the chemistry of combustion, but runs "cool", at just a few degrees above room temperature.
Compared with a traditional power source, fuel cells have high power and energy density, high efficiency, relatively low or even no pollution emission, low working
temperature and noise level, and rapid response to changes in the power demand.
Badwal's team at CSIRO Manufacturing and Infrastructure Technology in Clayton, Victoria, has already developed working prototypes of both hydrogen- and methanol-powered micro fuel cells, and aims to have commercial versions ready for market as early as 2007. Hitachi has also developed a prototype that is around 1 centimetre in diameter and between 5 centimetres and 6 centimetres in length, or about the same size as an "AA" battery.
While methanol fuel cells can work off small, non-pressurised cartridges, hydrogen-fuelled PEMs require pressurised hydrogen gas. While the hydrogen is only
pressurised to 2 or 3 atmospheres, the industry has yet to create a small, safe and standardised container for this. Badwal says the heart of the micro fuel cell is a thin but
tough membrane only 20 to 50 microns thick (1 micron = .001 mm), made of a special polymer that conducts protons. He describes the micro fuel cell "as a totally new paradigm", that could rapidly evolve into a billion dollar industry for Australia. Micro fuel cells, ranging from 0.5 watts to
50 watts in output, will re-model the microelectronics industry, by providing operating and standby times 6 to 7 times longer than the current generation of lithium-ion
Badwal's team has had a hydrogen-powered prototype operating continuously for nearly 7000 hours, with no significant degradation or loss of performance, which
inspires a lot of confidence within the development. They aim to achieve a working life of at least 15,000 hours, or nearly two years of continuous operation. The cells can
readily be shut down, and restarted, and when the compact cartridge of hydrogen or methanol runs out, another can be slotted into place to reactivate the cell within
They will be used in laptop computers, mobile phones, video cameras, portable TVs, DVD and audio devices, games consoles and power packs for soldiers in the field. They could also power remote-sensing devices or small, silent robotic aircraft that...