Micro Fuel Cell Disappointment?|
Dave Etchells, The Imaging Resource
(Tuesday, November 13, 2001 - 02:18 EST)
Several months ago, we reported with some excitement on the development of ultra-small fuel cell technology, suitable for deployment in portable devices like digital cameras, camcorders, PDAs, and cell phones. At the pre-Comdex Digital Focus event, we saw devices from Electric Fuel Corporation that claimed to be based on fuel-cell technology, but their overall economics and charge capacities were far from the levels that excited our initial interest in the concept.
We're not conversant with the details of fuel cell technology, but the zinc-air chemistry of the "Instant Power" battery packs is a technology we've in the past always heard referred to as "batteries", rather than "fuel cells". Indeed, the very concept of a fuel cell is that a fixed device generates power from a replenishable fuel source. The devices developed and being marketed by Electric Fuel look to us like batteries, pure and simple, offering reasonably high power capacities in small packages, but only as primary (non-rechargeable) power source. Costs are quite high as well, with the price of a pack ranging from $14.95 to $24.95, depending on capacity and configuration. Power density is higher than NiMH or even LiIon secondary cells, but at 13.9 watt-hours (4.2 volts at 3300 mAh), the pricey packs deliver only about twice the juice of a standard set of four high-capacity NiMH AA cells. Of course, the Zinc-Air packs have a shelf life in their original packaging of 3 years, while NiMH cells self-discharge at rates as high as 1% per day, but the economics of the Eletric Fuel packs don't strike us as very appealing.
We do believe that true micro fuel cells (which would allow replenishment of the fuel to extend run times) continue in development by other companies. If such devices do eventually make it to market in form factors (and with operating characteristics) that allow their use in digicams, it'll be a happy day for digital photographers. Being able to recharge your digicam by squirting a few drops of alcohol fuel into it is certainly an appealing concept. ("Bartender: A shot of scotch for my camera, please.") This current announcement certainly doesn't address that promise, though.
As we said at the outset, we're not ourselves conversant with what the technical distinction between fuel cell and battery technology might be, but Electric Fuel's calling their zinc-air batteries "fuel cells" certainly seems contrary to our understanding of accepted usage of that termů