Dreams of fuel cells serving the power needs of a laptop PC or other new technology to significantly increase battery life won't likely be available for years, according to an Acer executive.
In fact, the recent recall of nearly 9.6 million notebook PC batteries over fears a manufacturing problem could cause them to overheat or catch fire highlights the main reason why battery technology moves slower than other technologies inside a laptop, Acer president of IT products, Jim Wong said in an interview.
Safety is a huge issue with batteries. Electricity is generated by chemical reactions inside a battery, which produces heat as a byproduct. With so much chemistry involved, a lot more product testing was required, therefore battery technology progressed more slowly, he said.
"The lithium-ion materials used in batteries today were discovered 30 to 40 years ago," Wong said.
Fuel cells are promising, but the technology isn't ready yet, and an infrastructure needed to be in place before the technology could be widely used, he said.
Fuel cells require fuels such as hydrogen, butane, methanol, or natural gas to produce power. Not only would fuel packets or refueling stations be needed for mass adoption of the technology in laptops, they would also need to be approved by aviation officials for use on airplanes.
There has been progress made on such approval, but in an age of terrorism fears, where even cigarette lighters have been banned, the process is moving understandably slow. And users aren't likely to buy a laptop that can't be taken with them on vacations or business trips that require air travel. The battery issue is gaining more importance recently because the new era of multimedia laptops threatens to shorten battery life.
"High definition is a most formidable enemy to battery life," said Wong.
HD DVD and Blu-ray Disc players in laptop PCs really drag on battery life. Companies offset some of the drain by putting bigger batteries inside machines and with power management technology aimed at shutting off parts of the machine that aren't immediately being used. But such improvements only help a little bit. They're not the kind of breakthrough that fuel-cells are expected to be.