Hydrogen power on the go

Trulite develops a portable hydrogen-powered generator. It's not enough to power your house, but it can recharge power tools or run a laptop. Photo: Trulite's generator

A correction was made to this story. Read below for details.

Think of it as a briefcase for electricity.

Houston-based Trulite is developing a portable hydrogen-powered generator, the KH4. Pour water into the unit, and it will crank out 150 watts of power, and 200 watts at its peak. While that won't run your house, it's enough to recharge power tools or a laptop or run a small appliance, according to company CEO John Goodshall.

A target audience for the device will be contractors, particularly ones who work on downtown skyscrapers. Power tools regularly sap their batteries. (That's why Powergenix and other start-ups are trying to market new types of batteries for them.)

To get around the problem, contractors either carry spare batteries, which can be expensive, or recharge them with gas generators. The fumes and noise of the gas generators, however, are often incompatible with downtown building requirements. Thus, Trulite hopes that contractors will opt to carry its unit instead.

And for those people who bring a generator to a campsite to watch TV? A portable hydrogen generator will eliminate the noise.

The active ingredient in the fuel cell is sodium borohydride. The material splits water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen is then pushed through a membrane that extracts electrons. The sodium borohydride also stores hydrogen safely. Others are also working on similar solid storage systems for hydrogen.

"We control the flow of hydrogen," Goodshall said.

Once the fuel of the future, hydrogen now gets regularly panned by critics as being expensive and impractical. Advocates, however, say it could become an important green fuel when batteries or solar electricity aren't practical.

Hydrogen may be a niche, but its advocates aren't giving up. Horizon Fuel Cell Technologies, for instance, is promoting hydrogen fuel cells as a way to power boats on Swiss lakes.

Others have speculated that offshore platforms--decades from now--could harvest wave and tidal energy, turn it into hydrogen, and then ship it to shore. Offshore hydrogen would be used in those situations where it is impractical to connect a distant ocean platform to the grid. Toyota and Daimler-Chrysler continue to research hydrogen cars.

Trulite will release beta units soon, and the company hopes to start selling the KH4 in the second quarter of next year. The unit will cost about $2,000, which is far more expensive than a gas generator. A more powerful gas generator can be bought for $300.

Trulite's chairman is John Berger, a former Enron executive who is also behind Standard Renewable Energy, which sells energy-efficiency services and biodiesel.

Correction: This story incorrectly identified the active chemical in Trulite's hydrogen generator. It is sodium borohydride.
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