At $299 this is pretty pricey, however, I think the Nectar Mobile Power System, based on a mini solid oxide fuel cell that Lillipution Systems introduced this week at the CES show, could represent something of a breakthrough for consumer thinking about impact what larger-scale SOFCs could have once the technology matures.
What I mean is that, while I think a lot of people have heard about SOFCs (maybe from all the Bloom Energy publicity a while back), not many people have been able to see one up close and at a scale that they relate to.
The basic operations of the Nectar unit are pretty well demonstrated above. From what I understand, the attempt by Lilliputian to bring a mini SOFC to market goes back several years, and a Technology Review story in September reports that the company had first hoped it would occur in 2010. But, as is often the case, finding the right form factor and procuring several rounds of investments to allow for testing and ramping up production (while cutting costs) are well known bugaboos for developers. Lilliputian has been able to hang in there with big-league supporters, such as Intel and the venture cap group Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. Another big investor is Rusnano, a Russian government-owned venture cap group.
The fuel cell itself starts life as a standard 8-inch silicon wafer, and is manufactured like a chip. This gives them fine control of the physical structures, if you can make sub-micron structures for a CPU, fuel cells are not a big deal to draw. Minute features and surface texturing that are impossible through conventional manufacturing processes are not just possible in a fab, they are almost trivial compared to a modern CPU. This is MEMS at best.
There are a few advances that Lilliputian has brought to the market, sealing tech and thermal management are two of the biggest. To generate 2.5W of electricity at a claimed 25% efficiency, you are going to need to dissipate 7.5W or so of heat. That is easy enough given the size of a pod, but the fuel cell needs temperatures of 600°C to operate, more is better. Getting rid of the heat isn’t the problem, keeping it in long enough is.
To this end, the cell itself operates under a vacuum to prevent thermal transfer. Keeping a vacuum in place over time is hard, but doing so with repeated thermal cycles to almost 1,000°C is very hard. Lilliputian came up with a novel glass sealing technology to do this, and since they have products coming to market, it appears to work.
The other way that you lose thermal energy is IR radiation, and for this, the cell is coated internally with reflective coatings, and hot spots are shielded with other structures to absorb IR wherever possible.
According to the Lilliputian website, the company was a startup launched by researchers who had been at MIT’s Microsystems Technology Laboratory who licensed technology from MIT and the Lawrence Livermore National Lab.
Is two weeks of cell-phone charging capability worth $300 to consumers. I am guessing there are a few, but not a lot. Lilliputian originally predicted a price point of around $100, which would probably snag quite a few more tech geeks. On the other hand, my guess is that this type of product first finds real interest in defense-oriented applications, and, there, money tends to be less important than performance. If the DOD isn’t interested, maybe the Russian army is.