Rechargeable batteries are well-suited to portable-power applications where the energy requirement between recharges is relatively small. In recent years, for example, lithium-ion batteries have proved their worth in mobile communications (cellular phones) and in laptop computers. With the advent of mobile broadband computing, however, the next generation of portable electronic equipment will demand ever-greater amounts of stored energy, most probably at levels that are well beyond the capabilities of batteries. For this reason, attention is turning to so-called 'micro fuel cells' that promise an energy-storage capability of over an order of magnitude greater than that of the best batteries, albeit with a lower power output. It is, therefore, widely thought that the first major markets for fuel cells will be established in the field of portable power.
Already, there has been a surge of interest in the development of units that generate just a few watts to power a wide range of consumer electronics, as well as in larger cells (up to a few hundred watts) that are suitable for military equipment, such as man-pack radios, helmet-mounted image displays, night-vision sights, laser range finders, and sophisticated communications systems.
The ultimate in miniaturization would be a 'nano fuel cell' on a micro-chip. Self-powered chips would give birth to a new generation of self-sufficient devices, such as remote sensors that could telemeter data from the field back to a central station. These encouraging prospects for portable fuel cells will have little impact on the future business of lead-acid batteries as it has long been established that there are no substantial opportunities for this battery technology in portable-power applications.
Nanotechnology will also form part of the package of solutions to tackle emissions and fuel economy in the near future. Cerulean International, a firm which is part of Oxford University has started...