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Apple files patents for hydrogen fuel cell technology to power mobile devices

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December 28, 2011

Technical diagram from Apple's patent application for a hydrogen fuel cell system to power...

Technical diagram from Apple's patent application for a hydrogen fuel cell system to power portable computing devices

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Two recent patent applications by Apple indicate the company is looking at developing a hydrogen fuel cell system to complement the rechargeable batteries in a "portable computing device" - which could refer to Apple's range of mobile iDevices, its MacBook range of notebooks - or both. The applications say the technology could potentially power portable electronic devices for "days or even weeks," which would be sure to silence critics and users who have long complained about the poor battery life of not just Apple's, but all mobile computing devices.

Despite improvements in battery technology in recent years, as well as more energy efficient chips, poor battery life continues to be the bane of the mobile gadget lover's existence. The idea of using hydrogen fuel cells to power portable devices isn't new. Horizon's MINIPAK and Toshiba's Dynario that extend the power of portable devices have been on the market for a couple of years now. But despite being portable, they aren't exactly small enough to be integrated into a mobile phone unless a return to the days of the 80s-style "brick" is on the cards.

Technical diagram from Apple's patent application for a hydrogen fuel cell system to power...

One of Apple's patent applications says its fuel cell design would be capable of both providing power to and receiving power from a rechargeable battery, which "eliminates the need for a bulky and heavy battery within the fuel cell system, which can significantly reduce the size, weight and cost of the fuel cell system." Such a system could also offer instant refueling by swapping in a full fuel cartridge instead of waiting by an electrical outlet until a battery recharges.

Both patent applications were published by the US Patent & Trademark Office on December 22, but the first, entitled, "Fuel Cell System to Power a Portable Computing Device," was filed in August 2010, while the second, "Fuel Cell System Coupled to a Portable Computing Device," which was a continuation-in-part to the first, was filed in April 2011. This suggests Apple has been working on a replacement battery technology for some time - and they definitely aren't the only ones.

If and when hydrogen fuel cell technology makes it into mobile devices is still anyone's guess. But those salivating at the thought of a mobile phone or notebook computer that can operate for days or weeks without a recharge and can be refueled in seconds will be hoping it is sooner rather than later.

About the Author
Darren Quick Darren's love of technology started in primary school with a Nintendo Game & Watch Donkey Kong (still functioning) and a Commodore VIC 20 computer (not still functioning). In high school he upgraded to a 286 PC, and he's been following Moore's law ever since. This love of technology continued through a number of university courses and crappy jobs until 2008, when his interests found a home at Gizmag.   All articles by Darren Quick
10 Comments

Competitors: Mind the edge radius.

SCNR

EinSascha
29th December, 2011 @ 08:08 am PST

"Such a system could also offer instant refueling by swapping in a full fuel cartridge instead of waiting by an electrical outlet until a battery recharges."

Um, this is Apple we're talking about.

Thomas Roberts
29th December, 2011 @ 08:46 am PST

I truly hope that there is a lot more detail as to "how" they plan to make this work in the rest of the patent application. I do not know a lot about patents but if what is shown is all that is needed then I see why there are so many lawsuits.

To me this patents says: "If some one finds a way to charge a mobile electronic device using a fuel cell then we want money. "

Baron Raibert
29th December, 2011 @ 10:14 am PST

I don't see ANY news on Apple's diagrams shown here. Anyone can assemble a set of logic blocks like that... any electronic student does it hundreds of times. The real question is WHERE IS THAT MAGIC FUEL CELL which will make that block diagram turn into a working device.

And 2nd... storing Hydrogen is THE other difficult task to perform. Until now, most designs rely on methanol (then you need a H2 reforming unit too) or on expensive, bulky and still not safe Hidrate design or still to be developed nanotechnologies.

To me, it seems they are just preparing their way for future lawsuits against whoever dares to produce some viable product.

That's a very common tactic among industry giants. They don't really know what they're doing... but still they manage a way of burying their stakes on unclaimed grounds.

Rubin
29th December, 2011 @ 11:48 am PST

My question is: Ok, it will run for days. So how much does it cost to recharge the fuel cell? I don't want to pay $10 a month in fuel just to keep something running.

Jon A.
29th December, 2011 @ 12:12 pm PST

Why not package canned hydrogen (like butane) to refill the fuel cell in the device? It would be a lot easier than having to buy a bunch of fuel cells for backup use. The empty fuel cans could be reused by turning them in for refilling/recycling.

dsiple
29th December, 2011 @ 12:13 pm PST

It's true that the battery technology needed to keep portable devices running is not keeping pace with consumer demand for portable electronic devices. Wouldn't having two or even three extra batteries used for backup accomplish the same thing only cost a whole lot less money? I built auxiliary bat-packs to use on my camera and smart phone that accomplish the same thing. Also, as others have mentioned and gizmag confirms, there are plenty of hydrogen portable power systems out right now from such names as Hitachi, Motorola, Fujitsu, Toshiba,Casio, Ultracell, STMicroelectronics, SFC, & others! Seems like a excuse for shortcomings rather than a true invention. Perhaps more of a CYA since so many others may have beat them to the punch or at the very least are in the game!

Will, the tink
29th December, 2011 @ 02:52 pm PST

a fuel cell like this would make a lovely bomb

Hilary Albutt
29th December, 2011 @ 10:03 pm PST

As a research chemist I gave seen numerous hydrogen explosions; I wouldn't even stand near a hydrogen powered car let alone carry a hydrogen fuel cell in my pocket. Apple should call it the iBomb.

Light_Lab
31st December, 2011 @ 03:33 am PST

Working for Square D, I built a hydrogen-air explosion test stand & made explosions daily. H2 energy under the curve is small due to short duration of burn. Also H2 gas is GONE before you can access your zippo. Gasoline is much more dangerous as it will wait for you to get the match lit. Skeptics said the same things about gasoline before it was widely used. We will all have H2 cars someday. Gimme!

Orlando Furioso
31st December, 2011 @ 09:25 am PST
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