Imagine powering your notebook computer from a micro fuel cell the size of a cube of sugar. Consider the possibility of powering your entire home with a power plant the size of two soda cans. This is the potential of a breakthrough in fuel cells called "thin-film solid oxide fuel cells," or SOFCs. These thin-film solid oxide fuel cells are currently being developed at the University of Houston. They demonstrate remarkable properties for generating electricity without the high temperatures required by today's fuel cells, and without the need for taking up the space that's currently required by commercial fuel cells.
These thin-film fuel cells can be manufactured and put into production in very tiny spaces. We're talking about something that's half the size of an AA battery being able to power an entire computer, and to do it for hours on end. Even more importantly, these fuel cells operate at much higher energy efficiency than current electrical production and distribution systems. For example, a household running on such a fuel cell would operate at 65% efficiency -- that's the conversion of electrical potential in hydrogen to usable electricity -- rather than the more typical 30-35% efficiency offered by industrial power plants.
The applications for these miniature fuel cells are, of course, widespread: consumer electronics, portable computing, practical robots, medical devices, space exploration, personal transportation, power for remote sites, emergency power backup systems, and so on. The emergence of this technology is yet one more example of the new wave of portable power technologies we're witnessing today. It is truly an exciting time for this technology, and its development appears to be quite rapid. The sooner these technologies can be commercialized and brought to market as consumer products, the better; because today's power technology (batteries) is woefully inadequate.
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