Is Apple building a hydrogen-powered computer?

Scientists have found a way to jolt bacteria into producing clean-burning hydrogen.

Since Apple released its first unibody MacBook Pro, the company has promoted its environmentally friendly approach to product design. Most of the MacBook Pro is made from recyclable materials, such as aluminum and glass. The laptop's components are also "energy efficient and free of many harmful toxins" [source: Apple].

With Apple keeping a close eye on its environmental footprint, it makes sense that the company would consider renewable energy sources to power its products [source: Apple]. In December 2011, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office published these two patent applications by Apple for a "portable and cost-effective fuel cell system" for its portable devices:

  • Application 20110311895, filed Aug. 3, 2010: "Fuel Cell System to Power a Portable Computing Device" [source: USPTO]
  • Application 20110313589, filed April 28, 2011: "Fuel Cell System Coupled to a Portable Computing Device" [source: USPTO]

Both of these applications listed hydrogen as a potential fuel source. The documents also cited a provisional patent application titled "Portable Hydrogen Fuel Cell System" filed June 16, 2010, and listing the same inventors.

This news created buzz in the tech industry as 2011 drew to a close. A hydrogen fuel cell combines hydrogen (stored in the cell) and oxygen (from the surrounding air) to make water and electricity. According to Apple, hydrogen fuel cells "can potentially enable continued operation of portable electronic devices for days or even weeks without refueling" [source: USPTO].

Apple isn't the first company to pursue hydrogen fuel cells for powering devices. You can already buy charging devices for your existing electronics that use hydrogen fuel cells as a power source. For example, the Horizon MINIPAK is a pocket-sized charging device with a USB port. The device is powered with one of Horizon's Hydrostik fuel cells, a refillable cartridge of hydrogen that produces 1 Watt per hour of continuous power consumption, or the equivalent of 10 AA alkaline batteries [source: Horizon].

Apple's goal is to make a lighter, longer-lasting battery that's good for the environment. But will it be good for the user? Let's take a closer look at hydrogen fuel cells, Apple's design and the potential benefits and risks of using this technology in your laptop or smartphone.