2 min read

A Shot Of Red Eye For Your Cell Phone?

Motorola has created an alcohol-powered fuel cell prototype that could eventually help portable devices hold their charges longer.
On the TV show "Futurama," robots in the year 3000 power themselves by downing massive amounts of beer and spirits. As it turns out, that's not such a far-fetched idea; scientists at Motorola Labs have created a prototype alcohol-powered fuel cell that may eventually be used to power cell phones, notebook computers, and other devices.

Whereas fuels typically are burned to create energy, fuel cells convert fuel into electricity through chemical reactions. In the case of Motorola's prototype, the fuel in question is methanol, the same stuff that powers race cars in the Indianapolis 500. Fuel cells also are far more efficient than most energy sources, and they're non-polluting and easily rechargeable. But until now, they've been far too large and expensive for use in portable devices.

"We're trying to see how small we can get an entire fuel-cell system," says Jerry Hallmark, manager of Motorola's energy technology lab. The prototype device is roughly the size of a deck of cards and could last five times longer than a standard battery. Hallmark says it will probably be two or three years before all the kinks are worked out and we see cheap, commercially available fuel cells powering portable devices.

But before that happens, Hallmark says, we will probably see hybrid systems that power devices using regular batteries recharged by a fuel cell. A cell phone powered with such a hybrid system could easily operate for more than a month, he says, before the user would need to pop in a fresh cartridge of methanol.