The idea of fuel cells has been around for a long time: a refillable power source that would run off a disposable energy resource rather than mains electricity. Think of the modified DeLorean at the end of Back To The Future when Doc Emmett Brown powers it with garbage. Well, we haven’t come that far yet (sadly), but Sanyo and IBM think they are beginning to make progress using Methanol.
So let me explain what you are looking at above. It’s an IBM ThinkPad strapped to a Sanyo Methanol fuel cell and yes it does make a svelte notebook look like it just nosedived back into the nineties. No matter, this stuff is pre-production and - if you can get over the visuals - what we have here is rather an enticing idea: a battery offering a truly independent source of power.
Initial results from Sanyo also suggest that a single “tank” (my phrase) of methanol keeps this ThinkPad ticking for up to eight hours which is not to be sniffed at. How much methanol is required to do this is unclear, though there are suggestions that as little as 25ml could potentially do the trick. Imagine going on holiday and packing one coke can sized container of methanol refills, knowing you will not need to charge your laptop again for weeks.
Naturally, there are a number of factors to consider before this technology comes to market: will fuel cells work instead of or alongside existing Lithium Ion battery technology? What form will refills take? How much will they cost? How readily available will they be to purchase on a moment’s notice? How safe is it? Will it smell? And so on and so on.
One interesting side is that the ThinkPad you see in this article is unmodified. The Sanyo fuel cell is actually compatible with it, so maybe things are progressing faster than we imagine? Either way, it seems manufacturers are running out of patience with the limitations of Lithium Ion batteries which is understandable. After all, notebook form factors and performance are light-years ahead of where they were even a few years ago, while batteries still struggle to last much more than half a working day when used aggressively, which is simply not good enough.
If you want a closer look at this fuel cell technology, IBM provides a short movie showing it off here, although last time we checked the clip was down. You can count on us to get onto IBM and Sanyo and bitch about it.