Micro Fuel Cells

Could fuel cells be the hope for powering the devices of tomorrow? Writes NYTimes:

Many analysts expect fuel cells for consumer electronic devices to begin appearing next year in Japan. The betting is that the first to reach the market will be Toshiba, which is demonstrating a prototype of a methanol-powered cell this week at a trade show in Hanover, Germany. Toshiba says the cell could be sold next year with laptops.

Fuel cells run most efficiently on pure hydrogen, but storing hydrogen compactly and safely is a huge hurdle. Many designers of large and small fuel cell systems are trying to get hydrogen from solid compounds that contain hydrogen or hydrocarbon fuels like methanol and ethanol, even though those fuels add other elements like carbon dioxide to the waste stream.

Microcells have several economic advantages over their bigger cousins in the race to commercialization. Energy experts expect to cut the smaller cells’ production costs to be competitive with those of batteries long before larger cells can be manufactured at anything close to the cost of internal combustion engines.

It should also be easier and less expensive to persuade retailers to sell fuel cells the size of battery packs than to transform the huge national infrastructure of gasoline stations.

But the biggest reason the smaller cells are expected to become popular sooner is their appeal as a convenience something that consumers have shown a willingness to pay for and not as an answer to energy and environmental problems.

Internet on Power Lines

Can the power grid be used to deliver high-speed Internet? This is the focus of a WSJ story. The technology is being deployed on a small scale in Europe and the US. The benefit is that the delivery infrastructure is already in place: “It’s cheaper and quicker to deploy than DSL or cable, partly because the electrical wires that carry the communications signals are already in place everywhere.” Here is how it works:

A powerline communications subscriber could receive high-speed Internet access through any electrical outlet. A modem in the substation – which is a distribution hub for electricity – converts digital signals into analog. These signals pass along the unused higher-frequency spectrum on power lines. The line connects to an Internet backbone, such as those owned by WorldCom’s UUNet, AT&T Corp. or Sprint Corp. That connection is either through a line leased from the local phone carrier or through a fiber link owned by the utility.

The question of how to safely push the communications signal safely through a transformer, which steps down electrical current so it is safe for the home, has been one of the impediments to powerline communications over the last several years. The transformer generally causes the signal to lose half its content or become distorted.

Amperion, based in Chelmsford, Mass., has developed a system that uses wireless technology for the broadband connection from the power line to the home. Amperion makes devices that bypass the transformer and convert the signal to a wireless fidelity, or wi-fi, signal, then beam it to a receiver in the home. The customer would purchase the receiver.

Continue reading