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New markets for portable fuel cells

Less than ideal consumer interest in portable fuel cells has been a lingering issue without a simple solution. While impressive technological achievements have been made—recent examples include the Lilliputian Nectar and myFC PowerTrekk—most products have not been widely embraced by the marketplace. However, there are signs of demand in two underserved areas: national defense and the developing world.

The United States Defense Department sees portable fuel cells as a way to lighten the load for soldiers and Marines. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has experimented with fuel cells in unmanned aerial vehicles, but the agency is also exploring lightweight power sources that could charge soldiers’ gear. Patrick McGrath, a science and engineering technical advisor at DARPA said, “We are looking not just at the promise of fuel cells that people have been talking about for decades, but getting fuel cells into real missions and accomplishing things in the field.” If put to use, however, McGrath said it would be ideal to combine it with a magnetic field so that equipment could be charged wirelessly.

Places with unreliable or underdeveloped electric utilities could also benefit from portable fuel cells. While western consumers have had access to small-capacity fuel cells for a number of years, they typically have been too costly for developing regions. Point Source Power, a fuel cell maker spun from Lawrence Berkeley National Labs, is hoping to change that. The company states that it has developed a portable fuel cell that can be powered by liquids, biogas, and solids like wood, charcoal and even cow dung. After a fuel is placed into the device, it can be placed into a fire or cooking pit to produce methane, which is converted into electricity. An article posted on the company website says the device can produce two to three watts. The price? $4.

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