By Joel Hruska
A British firm, Intelligent Energy, has demonstrated a new iPhone 6 fuel cell that integrated seamlessly into the existing chassis and can reportedly run the device for up to a week. The manufacturer won’t directly confirm that it has worked directly with Apple to develop a fuel cell infrastructure for the company’s products, but reporters claim to have glimpsed prototype Macbook Air and iPhone devices.
You can already get various fuel cell chargers that combine lithium ion batteries and their own internal hardware, but what Internal Energy has worked on is (supposedly) quite different. The Telegraph reports that the company’s fuel cell technology can be integrated into an iPhone without any visible changes to the device, save for some additional vents that discharge water vapor. Total iPhone charge time? One week.
The infrastructure problem
The current iteration of Intelligent Energy’s hardware reportedly refuels the hydrogen fuel cell via the headphone jack (there’s no information on whether or not the jack remains usable for other purposes) and doesn’t replace the existing lithium-ion battery, only supplements it. There are multiple questions about how such a system would work in deployment. Intelligent Energy wants to license its technology, not produce kits wholesale, which means a phone manufacturer like Apple would need to take a substantial up-front cost and integrate the technology into a new handset run. Doing so would mean the device needs to be tested in a number of scenarios to ensure that the fuel cell doesn’t rupture or that the vents don’t become obstructed when the phone is slipped into various pockets or purses.
Deal with that problem, and there’s still the question of how device refills are handled and how much it costs to top up the fuel cell. At a few dollars per fuel cell, being able to carry a week’s worth of phone juice would be an amazing feature. Intelligent Energy already has a fuel cell recharger in the market, dubbed Upp, but the hardware is a separate boxy unit that connects to a device via USB. Some of these problems are analogous to those faced by the fuel cell vehicle industry, which currently has a limited market.
Upp’s own website notes that there are no authorized upp resellers within 125km of my own home, which points to the early adopter problems in the hydrogen economy. Right now, it’s difficult to convince people to adopt an additional means of powering devices that relies on external power packs or cartridges when wall power is cheap and sockets aren’t hard to find. Obviously a weeklong battery charge for an iPhone or other smartphone could be a lifesaver in the right conditions, but unless you’re heading out to hike the Appalachian Trail, it’s not a critical need.
Still, if any company can sell consumers on the value of a hydrogen fuel cell over and above the traditional Li-ion battery, it’s Apple. No word yet on whether or not the prototypes IE created will ever come to market, but this is the kind of technology play that could take several years to come to fruition. Sometimes that works out, as when Apple added fingerprint sensors. Others, like the company’s ill-fated sapphire glass venture, later come to naught.