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Is Apple building a hydrogen-powered computer?


Benefits, Risks and Challenges in Hydrogen-powered Computing

Earlier, we discovered the benefits Apple hopes to bring to portable computing by developing hydrogen fuel cell batteries:

  • Long-lasting power; more hours of use between charges
  • Lighter; less impact on the weight of the device
  • Produces a non-toxic byproduct

With the convenience of a longer charge, another benefit to hydrogen fuel cell batteries might be peace of mind. For example, a longer-lasting battery in your iPhone means less risk that the phone will shut down in middle of an important phone call. A lighter battery also means that Apple might enjoy the benefit of lower shipping costs for its products.

But what about the risks? Hydrogen has a reputation that dates back to before the infamous Hindenberg explosion. For portable electronics, the danger of hydrogen fuel cells isn't necessarily in using the hydrogen, but in storing it.

As of this writing, there are two common ways to store hydrogen: as a pressurized gas or as a cryogenically frozen liquid. The gas requires encasing the hydrogen in a way that prevents leaks or explosions when you jostle it. The liquid requires the additional weight of a cooling device, which could negate the benefits of a lighter fuel.

Fortunately, fuel cell designs are already overcoming these storage concerns. For instance, each Hydrostik, which we mentioned earlier as the power source for the Horizon Minipak, stores "a tiny amount of hydrogen as part of a solid metal complex and with very little pressure" [source: Horizon]. If Apple can implement a similar or better storage solution, it could produce hydrogen fuel cells that have as few, or perhaps even fewer, risks as its lithium polymer batteries.

If the risks are controlled, Apple's biggest challenge will be producing a reliable product at a reasonable price. The price of a hydrogen-powered iPhone or MacBook is affected by the price of production. Based on its patents, we can conclude the company's already putting a lot of time and resources into developing the technology. With that assumption, it's likely that Apple will also carefully consider the cost impact of that technology versus what its customers are willing to pay for it.

For lots more on the future of hydrogen powered portable devices, charge on over to the next page.