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Video CES: Tiny Fuel Cell is Supposed to Charge a Cell Phone for Two Weeks (Video) 204

Many of us have plug-in external batteries of one sort to recharge our smart phones when we're away from power outlets. Or we have gigantic aftermarket batteries that make our phones so fat they barely fit in our pockets. So there is this company, Lilliputian Power Systems, that is just starting to market a tiny, butane-powered fuel cell they call the Nectar that plugs into your cell phone (or whatever) through a USB port and supposedly charges it for up to two weeks. That's a lot better than an add-on battery. It looks expensive, although the power "pods" aren't too pricey at $19.99 for two. But wait a minute: Why aren't fuel cells, not internal combustion engines, the "range extenders" in plug-in hybrid cars? A decade back, fuel cells were going to revolutionize our power delivery and consumption systems. A cell phone charger is cute, but is that really all we can get fuel cells to do?

My name is Armin Kusig. I work for Lilliputian Systems. We developed the Nectar Mobile Power System, which is distributed through Brookstone in the US. This is a USB mobile charger. It charges anything that plugs into a standard USB port. What makes this different from all the battery chargers is that it is not a battery, it is a fuel cell. And that allows us to put a lot more energy into a device this size.

With this device you can carry about ten full charges for an iPhone or actually 55 watt-hours in one cartridge and that’s actually real 55 watt hours that come out of the output. So if you compare this to a battery pack that says it is 3000 milliamp hours, that’s 3000 milliamp hours with a 3.5 volt battery inside. So you really have to multiply that with 3.5 not with 5 if you want to compare it to our energy density.

Anything that plugs into your USB port can be charged with it. You can use the cable that comes with your phone. I just use adapter cables that I have available for the show. Can you see this? If you plug in this, the phone we should have tried this firstI think it might have a cable problem there. We will do that later.

So, the way the device works is that it is a hybrid system very much like a hybrid car. So it has inside it a small buffer battery of its own. And it will provide power through the USB output instantly as soon as you plug something into the USB. When the microprocessor senses that the internal battery capacity is getting slightly lower, it will start up the silicon power cell which is a solid oxide fuel cell built on a MEMS silicon chip. And that will take fuel from the butane fuel tank and convert it to electricity to both charge your phone and also recharge the internal battery. Once your phone is sufficiently charged, and the internal battery is full, it will turn off the silicon power cell again and go back into standby mode to be ready to be used again.

With one cartridge, again there are about 10 full charges, so that is about 2 weeks of power that you don’t have to worry about plugging in. Once the cartridge runs out, all you have to do is take out the pod, you can recycle the old one, this is recyclable plastic, you pick up a new one from Brookstone, you plug it in, and the device is instantly ready to go. There is no waiting for it to charge, there is no need to plug it in at night. There is no panic in the morning, when you realize you didn’t plug in your phone. It is always ready to go. It is always on power.

You can take this with you wherever you go. You can bring it on an airplane. This can go into carry-on luggage. It meets all the safety standards required by the TSA and also internationally. The Nectar pod is what we call the fuel cartridges. They can be put in your carry-on. Because it is a liquid fuel, you have to put them in a little plastic bag with your shampoo but it is perfectly fine to use on the plane. You only have to turn it off before takeoff and landing when you turn off all electronic devices. And this will never have you stand in line for power again. This will always have you be powered up, ready to go.

The Nectar pod is a fuel tank that holds butane gas. It is the same gas that is in a cigarette lighter. These pods are not refillable to meet the safety requirements that the TSA imposes. It has to be a tamper-proof sealed container, so we can’t allow them to be refueled. It is also the refilling logistics is a little bit more complicated than for a lighter. So you just have to buy a new pod from Brookstone and dispose off the old one. But it is recyclable plastic so that it can go into the regular recycling stream there. There is really no additional waste incurred with that.

It will actually charge an iPad but it will trickle charge it, so the iPad will not show it is charging. iPads are probably not the intended devices to be charged with this. The output is a standard USB output, 5 volts 500 milliamps. It is really intended for phones, smart phones, GPS units, all the little USB devices. For those devices, it doesn’t really matter how fast the charge is, because you are not stuck at the wall, while you are charging, you don’t wait for it to charge. There is no dead time when you are charging your phone anymore because you are charging while you are on the go, while you are doing your business, there is no need to wait for the phone to charge.

There have been other small portable fuel cells out there and if you have been following the technology, you’ve probably noticed that they are not any better than a lithium battery in their value proposition. So if you were to get a lithium battery this size, you’d probably get maybe 2 or 3 charges for your phone. And the same is true for some of the other small fuel cells that have come out. They are also roughly this size and they actually give you maybe 1 or 2 charges for your phone. So, in a way, they are even worse than the battery.

So this is the first one that actually has the high energy density that you can achieve by using a high energy fuel like butane gas, and a highly efficient fuel cell like the solid oxide fuel cell. The combination of those is what really makes it now actually better than a lithium battery. So you get 4 to 5 times as much energy in the same package. And you get the instant refueling and not having to wait all night for the big battery pack to charge.

We would like to refer to ourselves as one of the oldest startups around. The company has been around for about 12 years now. It started with the core technology for this. It came out of MIT and Lincoln Labs. This is our first product. But we clearly have a roadmap in mind where there are some obvious directions we want to go. Clearly we want to be able to shrink the device further to make it easier to carry, maybe eventually integrate the technology into your electronic devices, so you don’t have a separate charger but you have a butane-run powered cell phone.

On the other hand, we probably want to grow the device to make it powerful so you can run iPads, so you can run laptops and other higher powered devices.

Okay, so you can use the standard USB cable that came with your phone. In this case, I just used an adapter cable that happens to work. You plug into the phone, you plug the phone – the standard USB plug into the device, and as you do, the device will wake up. There is a little green light that shows that there is still fuel and another green light that shows you it is charging your device. And it is now running as the hybrid system from its internal battery and once that goes low, it will start up the silicon power cell and keeps charging for two weeks until the tank runs out of fuel.

I have been using this. It has come in handy at some points. Mostly our executive team is traveling with these all the time, all over the world, this is why we also have a good record experiencing airport safety in different countries, and we have not had any issues with that. And it is really a handy thing to have. You can walk by all the people that are stuck to the wall in the airport, and kind of laugh at them a little bit.

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CES: Tiny Fuel Cell is Supposed to Charge a Cell Phone for Two Weeks (Video)

Comments Filter:
  • Small print (Score:2, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday February 14, 2013 @03:49PM (#42899805)
    *Only applicable to phones powered by Atom Chip [].
  • Butane (Score:5, Informative)

    by ravenscar ( 1662985 ) on Thursday February 14, 2013 @03:58PM (#42899941)

    To answer the question of "Why aren't fuel cells, not internal combustion engines, the "range extenders" in plug-in hybrid cars?" posed in the TFS...

    In this case, the fuel cell is powered by butane. Butane is not readily available, in pure form, in large, easily transferable quantities all over the world. Gasoline, however, is. I understand that butane itself isn't rare, but the ability to get a fair quantity of it safely into my vehicle in a few minutes is.

  • Re:Small print (Score:4, Informative)

    by Phasma Felis ( 582975 ) on Thursday February 14, 2013 @04:17PM (#42900289)

    The actual small print: $19.99 is for the power cells. The charger that the cells and your phone plug in to doesn't even have a price listed yet, which probably means it costs hundreds. Oh, and it's also not available yet, and pre-orders are sold out.

    Slashdot fact-checking fails again. Great job, guys!

  • stupidly dangerous (Score:5, Informative)

    by slashmydots ( 2189826 ) on Thursday February 14, 2013 @04:24PM (#42900407)
    I have a 1500mAh battery pack module with a full-sized USB port and a power-pin-only 5-pin USB micro cable, 4" long, in my jacket pocket at all times. So it's a reserve battery for any device and it'll charge 1 phone or 1/4 of 1 tablet or some portion of a GPS unit but so what? On the other side, it has a solar panel and a charging indicator, that's what! Take that, pocket full of unstable, flammable gas. So solar panel vs butane....yeah, I'll stick with my solution, thanks. In direct sunlight, it doesn't take real long to recharge the entire battery pack either. Yeah, I'm out of luck at night but considering I can get 21 days of idle runtime on my Samsung R640 on one charge from this reserve battery, I think I can find some sunlight after depleting it.

    I believe I heard this Nectar device exceeds $300, or so they stated at CES. Mine cost $17 and it's from Scosche, which makes decent products.
  • Re:Small print (Score:5, Informative)

    by hawguy ( 1600213 ) on Thursday February 14, 2013 @05:03PM (#42901027)

    And to answer the question in the article:

    "Why aren't fuel cells, not internal combustion engines, the "range extenders" in plug-in hybrid cars?

    It's because electric cars use a *lot* of power - this is the same reason electric cars don't come with solar panels on the roof so you never need to charge them - it takes a lot of energy to charge an electric car.

    Since the power cells cost $20, they must contain more than fuel, they probably include some consumable electrodes or membranes.

    The fuel cells are are rated to produce 55Wh (with 2.5W maximum draw).

    A Nissan Leaf goes 73 miles on its 24KWh battery pack - so that's 328 Watt-Hours per mile.

    It would take about 6 of these $20 power cells to power your car for one mile or $120 (though you may need 150 of these chargers in parallel to generate enough power).

    Even if you assume a 90% drop in price when scaling this up to car size, that's still $12 per mile.

    I've seen refrigerator-sized, $20,000 natural gas fuel cells for powering (and heating) your home, but if you're going to power your car from natural gas, why not just make it a hybrid that uses an natural gas powered engine instead of an electric car that has a bulky and expensive natural gas powered fuel cell?

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