Consumer fuel cells continue to tantalize the imagination -- but they've been doing so for the last decade. Lilliputian Systems is the latest entrant to make a run at a charging device for mobile gadgets with its Nectar fuel cell, introduced at CES 2013. There's a lot of interesting technology under the hood, along with a marketing relationship, that may take it across the finish line as a commercial success.
Nectar, roughly the shape of a mid-sized digital camera, weighs in at about 200 grams for the actual fuel cell hardware plus another 35 grams for the power "pod" cartridge full of isobutane. The fuel is basically the same stuff that you find disposable lighters. Inside the device, there's a proprietary silicon-based Solid Oxide fuel cell. Isobutane and oxygen are pumped in with power and water vapor produced as byproducts. If you're worried about safety, the product has been certified for international shipping and for carry-on and use aboard airplanes by the UN International Civil Aviation Organization (CAO) and the U.S. Department of Transportation
A USB 2.0 port on the Nectar fuel cell provides up to 2.5W of peak power and there is up to 55,000 mW-hours of energy in a single disposable power pod -- "two weeks" to "a month" of power for use, according to the company.
Interestingly, the proprietary silicon is inside nectar is fabricated outside Boston on an Intel fabrication line once used to crank out DEC Alpha CPUs. Certain technology used in the device have been obtained under exclusive licenses from MIT and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories and the company has secured about $100 million in venture capital funding to commercialize the core tech.
Brookstone is the first retail partner for the device, so you can expect to see Nectar touted through its website and shop locations, including those at the airport where gadget loving power-hungry customers like myself can be found.
Customers can pre-order a Nectar today through Brookstone's website for $299.99, with an anticipated ship date of July 5, 2013. Power pods are expected to list at $9.95, but I expect that cost to drop over time as production quantities ramp up. After all, a disposable five pick of Bic lighters runs between $5 to $7 with metal strikers and packaging.
But will people buy it? I've seen numerous methanol and borax-based fuel cell schemes come and go over the years. Methanol hasn't gained any traction, while borax technology is on its second or third wave of companies trying to commercialize the tech.
One of my Facebook buddies pointed out that Horizon's MINIPAK fuel cell charger for $99 available today through REI does almost the same thing as Nectar by charging $12 dollar reusable metal hydride cartridges using a $249 hydrogen "charger." You'd end up paying a bit more up front -- say $349 plus $12 times how many cartridges you need. The Horizon MINIPAK's main drawback is it only puts out about 2 watts of power; not quite powerful enough to sate the 2.1 amp craving of the Apple iPad.
Edited by Rachel Ramsey