Not Your Mother's Battery: Are Fuel Cells the Future? Bloom Box, MiniPak, and the other Fuel Cells That Will Power Our Future

Fuel cells are incredibly efficient, and they're starting to catch on. In the near future, they may power your laptop, and more.

The world may start moving away from fossil fuels, but our energy needs are still increasing. Developing new ways to power the planet is of paramount importance. We recently looked at the merits and pitfalls of hydrogen fuel cell-powered vehicles, many of which are set to roll out in the coming years. Beyond cars, fuel cells have an important role in our energy future. In the coming years, they may do everything from power our electronic gadgets to keep the lights on in our homes.

Fuel cells come in a number of different varieties, but all feature three main components: an anode, an electrolyte, and a cathode. Chemical reactions at the interface between the three components consume a fuel that a user inputs, creating steam or carbon dioxide (depending on the fuel being used), and generating an electric current. It's like having a small power plant at your fingertips. Unlike batteries, fuel cells don't store energy; they're always running. While batteries are recharged, fuel cells are simply refuelled.

Perhaps the most talked about fuel cell device in recent years is Bloom Energy's Bloom Box Energy Server, a $700,000 machine that is made out of solid oxide fuel cells (in this case, a stack of ceramic disks coated with green and black inks separated by metal alloy plates). When a fuel is added, the disks heat up to extreme temperatures and produce electricity. The box can run on a number of fuels, including natural gas, biomass gas, landfill gas, and ethanol.

EBay recently installed five natural gas-powered Bloom Boxes, which now generate 15 percent of all power at the company's San Jose, California, campus. They're efficient, too—the company claims that its Bloom system generates five times more energy over the course of a year than its 3,246 solar panels since they can still generate power during adverse weather conditions. And unlike the company's dispersed solar panels, a single Bloom Box fits in the size of a standard parking space.

In the next decade, Bloom plans on bringing its technology to the home market, so environmentally-minded consumers can quickly relieve themselves of monthly power bills from their local utility.

But fuel cells can do a lot more than power our homes and workplaces. Just this week, Apple scored a patent for an internal fuel cell component. Apple was first rumored to be using fuel cells to juice up its PowerBooks in 2003, but now it looks like the rumors may finally be coming to fruition. Could the next iPhone be powered by fuel cells?

There are already a number of companies working on personal pocket-sized fuel cell chargers. Hydrogen Fuel Cell Technologies is, for example, showcasing its MiniPak fuel cell at this week's Consumer Electronics Show. The device, which currently retails for $99, comes with two solid state hydrogen cartridges that can reportedly provide as much power as 1,000 AA alkaline batteries—the advantage over traditional batteries being the ability to carry around large amounts of electricity in your pocket. In the near future, Hydrogen Fuel Cell Technologies plans on selling the HydroFILL, a small recharge for the catridges that requires just water and power from either a wall socket or solar panel.

Of course, just because enterprising companies are rapidly churning out fuel cells doesn't mean that the devices will catch on. The Bloom Box is still an expensive purchase—power from the box reportedly costs $12.50 per watt when upfront costs and fuel are taken into account (federal and state subsidies in California bring that cost down to $6.25 per watt). Microturbines, in comparison, cost less than $1 per watt to run, though they produce far less energy per square inch.

And there are still issues to resolve before fuel cells become common in small electronic devices. Currently, they produce too much heat to become integrated into, say, a laptop computer, and they're generally too large to fit into smaller mobile gadgets. But smaller, cheaper fuel cells are coming—they may just take a little while to arrive.