A British firm, Intelligent Energy, has demonstrated a new iPhone 6 fuel cell that integrated seamlessly into the existing chassis and can reportedly run the device for up to a week. The manufacturer won’t directly confirm that it has worked directly with Apple to develop a fuel cell infrastructure for the company’s products, but reporters claim to have glimpsed prototype Macbook Air and iPhone devices.
You can already get various fuel cell chargers that combine lithium ion batteries and their own internal hardware, but what Internal Energy has worked on is (supposedly) quite different. The Telegraph reports that the company’s fuel cell technology can be integrated into an iPhone without any visible changes to the device, save for some additional vents that discharge water vapor. Total iPhone charge time? One week.
Henri Winand, CEO of Intelligent Energy:
“ To our knowledge this has never been done before. We have now managed to make a fuel cell so thin we can fit it to the existing chassis without alterations and retaining the rechargeable battery. This is a major step because if you are moving to a new technology you have to give people a path they are comfortable with.”
The only cosmetic difference on the iPhone 6 prototype is the addition of rear vents allowing a small amount of water vapor to escape. Several news reports the device shown at the company’s Loughborough, United Kingdom headquarters also had a modified headphone socket for refuelling hydrogen gas, although likely only because it was a prototype.
The infrastructure problem
The current iteration of Intelligent Energy’s hardware reportedly refuels the hydrogen fuel cell via the headphone jack (there’s no information on whether or not the jack remains usable for other purposes) and doesn’t replace the existing lithium-ion battery, only supplements it. There are multiple questions about how such a system would work in deployment. Intelligent Energy wants to license its technology, not produce kits wholesale, which means a phone manufacturer like Apple would need to take a substantial up-front cost and integrate the technology into a new handset run. Doing so would mean the device needs to be tested in a number of scenarios to ensure that the fuel cell doesn’t rupture or that the vents don’t become obstructed when the phone is slipped into various pockets or purses.
Deal with that problem, and there’s still the question of how device refills are handled and how much it costs to top up the fuel cell. At a few dollars per fuel cell, being able to carry a week’s worth of phone juice would be an amazing feature. Intelligent Energy already has a fuel cell recharger in the market, dubbed Upp, but the hardware is a separate boxy unit that connects to a device via USB. Some of these problems are analogous to those faced by the fuel cell vehicle industry, which currently has a limited market.
Upp’s own website notes that there are no authorized upp resellers within 125km of my own home, which points to the early adopter problems in the hydrogen economy. Right now, it’s difficult to convince people to adopt an additional means of powering devices that relies on external power packs or cartridges when wall power is cheap and sockets aren’t hard to find. Obviously a weeklong battery charge for an iPhone or other smartphone could be a lifesaver in the right conditions, but unless you’re heading out to hike the Appalachian Trail, it’s not a critical need.
Still, if any company can sell consumers on the value of a hydrogen fuel cell over and above the traditional Li-ion battery, it’s Apple. No word yet on whether or not the prototypes IE created will ever come to market, but this is the kind of technology play that could take several years to come to fruition. Sometimes that works out, as when Apple added fingerprint sensors. Others, like the company’s ill-fated sapphire glass venture, later come to naught.
Intelligent Energy plans to sell a disposable cartridge that will attach to the bottom of a smartphone and provide enough hydrogen-releasing powder “for a week of normal use,” and the company’s corporate finance chief Mark Lawson-Statham vaguely mentions having a “partner” on board — speculated to be Apple, although both companies declined to comment as expected.
” Nevertheless, the rumours and clues are overwhelming. Apple has a series of patents around fuel cell technology on public record. In recent research on Intelligent Energy, Zeus Capital analyst Dr Tom McColm wrote that he believes it is working closely with Apple. ”
The iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus are powered by 1,810 mAh and 2,915 mAh lithium-ion batteries respectively.