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Medis Power Pack: A fuel cell gadget charger

Liquid fuel cells for charging portable devices are coming and one of the first is the Medis 24-7 Power Pack, which charged up my iPod. But how green is it?

As I write, a small black box on my desk--a liquid fuel cell--is charging my iPod Touch.

It's a Medis 24-7 Power Pack, a portable charger for small electronics like a cell phone or an iPod.

Medis Technologies says that one Power Pack, which recently went on sale online and at Best Buy, can give you 30 hours of talk time on an average mobile phone or 60 to 80 hours of play time on an average iPod. That translates to about five or six full charges for an iPhone. A starter kit with adapters costs about $40 and a replacement pack is about $20.

Medis 24-7 Power Pack portable charger
Power on the go, using a fuel-cell charger. Martin LaMonica/CNET News

With the explosion in gadgets, many of them becoming more power-hungry, there are growing set of options for on-the-go recharging, including direct liquid fuel cells. Large consumer electronics manufacturers, including Sharp, are developing products that can be charged by these pint-size power sources.

The Medis 24-7 Power Pack is one of, if not the, first liquid fuel-cell chargers for small devices. You can also expect versions for laptops within two to five years, say adherents.

I'll offer my first impressions with one important disclosure: I am not a product reviewer. I'm a green-tech reporter who likes to play around with alternative energy in the home.

First, why bother?

From a technophile perspective, this is a neat device. No longer are fuel cells reserved for spacecraft and car-of-the-future demonstrations. At $40, it's a real consumer-ready fuel cell.

Medis and other portable charger makers say that this isn't a replacement for your standard AC charger. Instead, think of it as a supplemental power source when you can't get to a wall socket.

If you're on the move all day for work or school, you can pull a portable charger out to add some talk time to your cell phone or get a couple more hours of music during your commute. It can be transported on a plane and it's light, at less than half of a pound.

The Medis Power Pack before being activated. You have to squeeze the top until it snaps with the bottom to get the electricity flowing. Martin LaMonica/CNET News

The Xtreme version of the Medis 24/7 puts out four watts. It took about an hour to bring my slightly-more-than-half-charged iPod to full. That seems to match the company's claim that it charges at about the same speed as an AC charger.

Unlike a stand-alone battery, this can't be recharged--you recycle it or, down the road, refill a fuel cartridge.

Green-tech cred
Medis Technologies says that it's a green product because everything in it can be recycled. It doesn't use any toxic materials like the heavy metals used in batteries, complies with RoHS hazardous waste regulations, and doesn't have harmful emissions during use, according to the company.

The company encourages recycling by including packaging to send the device back to be recycled before buying a refilled pack.

There are a number of companies that are making liquid fuel cells using methanol, but the Medis charger uses a solution of sodium borohydride, a mineral that comes from mines. It's also looking at synthetic replacements.

The fuel itself can recycled in other products, Medis Technologies vice president Michelle Rush said. The spent borates can be purified and put into detergents, cosmetics, fire retardants, and other products, she said.

The next generation of its fuel cell, expected to be ready in 18 months, will have a detachable cartridge that can be refilled, which should be more convenient than mailing a product back. Medis Technologies hopes that it can get involved in retail tech recycling programs like those for camera batteries or printer cartridges.

"Consumers really want to support green companies and we are clearly on that path," Rush said.

How to use
You could store it for at least 18 months, most likely years, before activating, according to the company. Once it has started being used, it has three months of life.

The end user, in fact, has to start the chemical reaction to get the juice flowing. To activate it, you remove a plastic strip strapped around the device and then squeeze the top so that it snaps with the bottom.

You then shake it to mix the solution around and the electricity is ready to flow. It comes with adapters for many devices.

Overall, this seems like a good application of fuel cells. And I applaud the company for making--and taking back through a partner--a product that they say can be entirely recycled.

My own needs for portable power are fairly limited but I'll keep the pack in my car for when I need an extra boost.

The Power Pack is also competing with "free" energy from my solar chargers. Another portable charger I'm waiting to go commercial is the planned motion-powered electronics charger from M2E Power.

In a couple of years, Medis plans to make fuel-cell chargers for laptops able to deliver 20 watts of electricity, which would give eight more hours of operation. The idea is to have a solid fuel that gets mixed with water as needed.

Depending on its weight, a fuel cell for laptops could attract a lot more people who would rather have a clean power source than lug around extra batteries.

Update on September 14 5:10 p.m. PT to make clear there are two editions of the Power Pack with different technical specifications.

The Medis Xtreme 24/7, which I used, is for charging larger devices like an iPhone; the Medis 24/7 is for cell phones. The Xtreme puts out 4 watts at five volts and has a capacity of 4.5 ah (ampere-hours), while the Medis 24/7 delivers 1 watt.