The Explosive Future of Mobile Power

You’d think scientists had learned a lesson or two from the Hindenburg.I mean, it was full of hydrogen and blew up.

One day soon, though, you’ll probably find yourself feeling rather awkward in an airport security line with a tube of this gas in your pocket.

The variety of power-hungry devices we find ourselves surrounded by these days is proving that the l’il ol’ Li battery (Lithium-Ion) just doesn’t cut the muster anymore.

Recent studies have demonstrated that battery life is the number one improvement consumers demand of mobile devices. 48 hours of active use is apparently the average minimum we all seek.

I have to admit, I was rather choked the other night when my PlayStation Portable ran out of gas halfway through Star Wars Battlefront 2. I mean, it was such a drag. I actually had to go to bed. And sleep.

Imagine if it actually ran for two solid days. I’d be in serious trouble.

This is where hydrogen enters the picture. This rather unstable substance, along with the only-slightly-less-flamable methane, is being actively developed as the energy source for the next generation of mobile battery.

That’s gotta fill you up with warm fuzzies. In the next few years pretty much every mobile device — cell phone, iPod, the aforementioned PSP, even laptops — will be full of the same gas that brought down a massive Nazi airship. Well, that or embalming fluid.

For these are the two distinct camps in the upcoming battle of the battery: methane and hydrogen. Technology companies are entrenching themselves in a path to adopt one or the other.

Canon has demonstrated working cameras powered by hydrogen fuel cells. NTT promises to market a cell phone full of the nasty gas in about three years (tip to NTT: don’t name the model LZ-129).
Toshiba assures us they’ll have commercial methane batteries available for sale by 2006. But they’ve been saying “next year” since 2002, so don’t hold your breath.

IBM and Sanyo teamed up to produce a methane power source for laptops. They just can’t seem to get the thing any smaller than a brick. LG promises a fuel cell laptop by this time next year. And that’s a promise.

The problem with all of this technological daydreaming should be obvious, though: it’s still not enough.
LG’s laptop will only last 10 hours on a methane charge (and you know that’s an inflated estimate). A methane-powered cell phone slated to hit the market from Toshiba and Hitachi in the spring will barely double talk time. The hydrogen units won’t do any better.

Aren’t these companies listening? We want days of power, not just a few more hours. They should be putting plutonium in our pockets, not alcohol and stale farts.

After all, if we’re expected to accept the risk of travelling on transcontinental flights with explosive compounds powering our game play and music listening, then we should go all the way.

If the fear factor of these prophesied batteries doesn’t turn your crank, though, check out their promised convenience of use — or lack thereof.

Presumably the compressed-gas hydrogen will come in special canisters that we’ll be able to toss away and clutter up the environment with. The methane camp, however, will offer a battery refill option akin to topping up a butane lighter.

I once had to refill a Zippo and it was a moderately messy affair. Admittedly, it was in an altered state of mind that I undertook the operation, but charging up an expensive cell phone in the same manner somehow strikes me as ludicrous.

Talking about lighters, we’ve all heard a lot over the last few years about cell phones causing brain tumours. Imagine the cafuffle when a smoker’s methane model ignites and blows her ear off.

If blowing up’s not your game, then how about diarrhea? Some scientists at a university in England have figured out how to power up light bulbs by breaking down food waste with E.coli. They figure this is the next generation of mobile power.

Nice. Instead of a doggie bag, just feed the leftovers to the bacteria colony in your shirt pocket. That might get you another day of talk on your cell. I can only imagine the smell. And don’t let your toddler chew on that thing.

So there are our options: dysentery or explosive disaster. Hitler learned his lesson when his big balloon went spectacularly pop. Before we all get gung ho on carting around dangerous goods just to make a phone call, perhaps we should reflect upon the teachings of history.

Andrew Robulack is an IT business strategist and architect based in Whitehorse.