LIVERMORE, Calif. -- Researchers at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory have developed and
demonstrated a laboratory prototype miniature thin-film fuel cell power source, which provides
portable electrical power for a range of consumer electronics. With the LLNL fuel cell, a typical
cell phone battery could be projected to last more than 300 percent longer, extending standby time
from four days to two weeks, and talk time from six hours to two days.
The miniature fuel cell technology incorporates a thin film fuel cell and microfluidic
fuel processing components integrated into a common package. Using easy-to-store liquid
fuels, such as methanol, the fuel cell power module provides greater than three times longer
operating time than present rechargeable batteries.
"LLNL's fuel cell can be cheaper, smaller, with more energy capacity than any battery or
alternative fuel cell technology," said Jeff Morse of the LLNL Center for Microtechnology
"Additionally, the higher energy capacity of such a product will lead to further new
classes of personal electronics," Morse explained, "such as autonomous sensors and
communication devices that are not currently possible with existing battery technologies.
This will facilitate the integration of voice, data and computing technologies that cannot
be achieved with today's technologies."
The patented design and method for making thin-film fuel cells combines microcircuit
processes, microfluidic components, and micro-electrical-mechanical systems (MEMS) technology.
This solution provides the consumer a lighter-weight, longer-lasting power source for replacement
of existing rechargeable batteries.
Morse predicts the MEMS-based fuel cell power source will replace rechargeable batteries, such as
lithium-ion and lithium-ion polymer, in a range of consumer electronics, including cell phones,
handheld computers and laptops. The MEMS fuel cell is designed to be 50 percent of the cost with
30 percent of the weight, size or volume of existing rechargeable portable power sources.
"The MEMS-based fuel cell has been designed to compete with existing re-chargeable batteries in
their respective marketplaces," said Morse. Current estimates suggest a price of $1.50-$3 per
The fuel cells may also create a significant alternative to disposable batteries. They
could decrease the total number of batteries used by 50 percent, with a total cost of
over $2 billion per year, and vastly reduce the kilotons per year of waste generated by
these old technologies, many of them containing toxic metals requiring special disposal.
LLNL's miniature fuel cell product incorporates integrated microfluidic fuel distribution
architecture within a miniature fuel cell package. This feature enables the fuel cell to
operate from highly concentrated methyl alcohol fuel mixtures supplied from a replaceable
The impact to the consumer will be greater than three times longer periods between recharging
for initial products, with foreseeable improvements of up to 15 times longer. Furthermore,
recharging is instantaneous by simply plugging in a new fuel cartridge.
The heart of this miniature power source utilizes a thin layer of electrolyte material
sandwiched between electrode materials containing appropriately proportioned catalyst
materials. Microfluidic control elements distribute methyl alcohol fuel mixtures through a
silicon chip over one electrode surface while air is simultaneously distributed over the
other electrode. Integrated resistive heaters allow heating of the electrolyte-electrode
layers, thereby increasing the conduction of catalytically generated protons from the fuel
supply across the electrolyte to the air breathing electrode, where they combine with oxygen
to generate electrical current. Optimization of current output through control of the catalyst
and electrode surface area, and microfluidic fuel distribution, offer a miniature energy source
providing continuous power for greater than three times longer than existing rechargeable
The miniature fuel cell power source developed at LLNL will find applications in the complete range
of consumer electronics as a replacement for rechargeable batteries. These include cell phones,
personal digital assistants, laptops and other portable electronics.
Other applications include military electronics and sensors for remote and autonomous application
in which extremely long lasting power is required.
Morse will be speaking on this technology at the upcoming NanoSIG conference, Feb. 14,
hosted by LLNL.
Founded in 1952, LLNL is a national security laboratory with a mission to ensure national
security and apply science and technology to the important issues of our time. LLNL is managed by
the University of California for the National Nuclear Security Administration/ Department of Energy.
Note: This story has been adapted from a news release issued by Lawrence Livermore National
Laboratory for journalists and other members of the public. If you wish to quote from any part
of this story, please credit Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory as the original source. You
may also wish to include the following link in any citation: