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A practical consumer fuel cell, coming soon

Horizon Fuel Cell Technologies is preparing to introduce what may be the first practical fuel-cell power supply aimed at ordinary consumers. It isn't perfect, but it has the right price point and convenient refueling. Is the market ready?

Peter Glaskowsky
Peter N. Glaskowsky is a computer architect in Silicon Valley and a technology analyst for the Envisioneering Group. He has designed chip- and board-level products in the defense and computer industries, managed design teams, and served as editor in chief of the industry newsletter "Microprocessor Report." He is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not an employee of CNET. Disclosure.
Peter Glaskowsky
4 min read

At CES 2008, I talked with several companies, some for work and some for Speeds and Feeds.

Although I saw many interesting products, I'm really looking forward to one product in particular that isn't due to ship until October.

Horizon HydroPak
The HydroPak fuel-cell power supply takes replaceable fuel cartridges and produces AC power. Horizon Fuel Cell Technologies

It's the HydroPak fuel-cell power supply from Horizon Fuel Cell Technologies. It produces up to 25 watts of power from replaceable solid fuel cartridges and water. A single refueling can produce about 270 watt-hours of energy through the HydroPak's standard 110V AC power outlet and two auxiliary USB power jacks.

This electricity is expensive-- $20 for a fuel cartridge, putting the cost of a kilowatt-hour at $74 vs. about a dime if you get it from a wall outlet. But as I described in a December post about the much larger, more expensive iGen fuel cell from IdaTech, the price of electricity in an emergency or when you're just out camping can be relatively high and still make good sense.

It's easy to get cheap electricity in the field. Buy a gasoline generator ($300 and up) and some fuel. Pull the starter, and you've got juice. But a generator is loud and smelly, and gasoline is dangerous. Nobody wants to listen to a noisy generator out in the wilderness. Nobody wants to smell one anywhere, and you can't use one indoors.

Also, a generator may produce much more power than you need. There's no such thing as a 25-watt gasoline generator. Even the smallest generators are barely portable. If all you need to run is a radio or a laptop, a generator is overkill.

But fuel cells aren't a good alternative today. I've written about tiny ones like the Medis 24-7 Power Pack (which I don't like because it's too small and much, much too expensive) and large ones like the iGen and the Trulite KH4. But there isn't anything in between--nothing priced like a gasoline generator but capable of producing useful amounts of power.

So that's where the HydroPak comes in. It's $400 for the main unit and $20 for the cartridges. The main unit weighs four pounds; one fuel load consists of a half-pound fuel cartridge and a little over a pint of ordinary water (which needn't be pure; even salt water is OK). The HydroPak can operate indoors; there's no exhaust. It's almost silent.

On one refueling, the HydroPak can recharge a notebook computer several times--maybe five times for a full-size notebook like the MacBook Pro I use, maybe 10 times for a small machine like the Asus Eee PC.

The fuel cartridges can be stored for years. They're safe to transport; Horizon is working on getting all the appropriate transportation safety certifications. You don't have to use the whole fuel cartridge at once after it's been activated.

The cartridges contain the same sodium-borohydride fuel that the Medis and Trulite power supplies use. It seems to be the best option right now, but it isn't perfect. It's offers good energy density, but it's still a corrosive, mildly hazardous chemical. As long as the fuel and the byproducts of the reaction, which are returned to the cartridge, remain securely sealed inside, everything's OK... and that means packaging may be the critical element of all these products. We'll just have to see how it all works out as consumer sales grow.

The other drawback of the HydroPak is the way power is drawn from the unit. That AC power outlet seems convenient, but the unit can only provide 25W of power--50W peak for brief periods--and most things that plug into an AC outlet draw more power than that.

My MacBook Pro has an 85-watt AC adapter, but the 85W figure is for its DC output. It's rated to draw up to 165 watts from the wall--although I think in practice it probably doesn't exceed about 100 watts. Even the AC adapter that came with my Eee PC says it can draw 74 watts of 110V power, though I think it probably really tops out at 40 watts or so. Will that work on the HydroPak? I'm not sure.

The USB power outlets are convenient for cell phones and other low-power devices (up to 2.5 watts each), but you can't charge a laptop or power tools from a USB jack.

It seems to me that what the HydroPak really needs is a high-power DC output--a traditional 12V cigarette-lighter jack or perhaps the Anderson Powerpole, which has become the standard 12V power connector in the amateur-radio field. It would be especially valuable if the HydroPak could charge standard 12V car batteries or smaller gel-cell batteries, because then an AC power inverter could be connected to produce much more than 25 watts of output power for shorter periods of time.

Anyway, I'm sure that Horizon and other fuel-cell providers will figure out what the market wants, and over the next few years we'll probably see a great variety of fuel-cell power supplies. But I think we'll be able to say that 2008 was the year that fuel cells first became true consumer products, and Horizon may be the first to get there.