No fuel like an old fuel

Portable fuel cells will be here next year, as they will have been every year since 1995. They're finally running out of time

Exciting new technologies drive IT. One looks particularly promising — a new alternative battery technology that could give mobile phones, laptops and other portable electronic devices up to 20 times more time between charges, while having a much longer unit lifetime and impeccable environmental credentials. Designed for inexpensive mass production, it is already in prototype form and should be with us commercially in eighteen months or so.

No, we're not talking about IBM and Sanyo's fuel cell announcement this week — although it fits the template. We're talking about every fuel cell announcement in the past ten years. Go back through the countless press releases and news stories, and you'll find a hundred coulds for every will, a hundred mights for every shall. What you won't find is actual product.

Fuel cells are the archetypical "Tomorrow's World" idea. They look wonderful on the lab bench, offer revolutionary progress in areas that matter to everyone, and just need that final push to get them onto the shelves and into our lives. Then they vanish.

The idea is so tempting it is not surprising that it attracts investment, and the production problems of expensive materials and low efficiency that always scupper that final stage are subtle and easy to fudge on paper. One day, somebody will probably find a way around these issues — you won't be surprised to hear that those two patron saints of arm-waving, biotech and nanotech are being invoked;

But the technology is in danger of running out of time.

Original claims for fuel cells have been ruefully moderated as the difference between theoretical and practical has become better understood. At the same time, the performance of traditional lithium-ion and nickel-metal-hydride batteries has improved little by little, year by year. By now, IBM and Sanyo's preannouncement says merely that their device — which has an ordinary battery in it as well — will give eight hours operation. Roughly what you might expect from taking a spare battery along in the first place.

Barring a major innovation, it is unlikely that fuel cells will be important in IT. No matter how attractive a technology is or how much everyone wants it to work, it can only be judged against reality. Otherwise they are merely hype — and fuel cells are guilty as charged.

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