Wednesday, February 04, 2004

Brand New Markets
On a flight back from the West Coast yesterday, I was again struck by the way in which so many things are limited by the poor power density of rechargeable batteries. Laptops, cellphones, MP3 players, etc. would all be more useful with a longer-life power source. There are plenty of companies working hard to do just that, particularly with fuel cell-based approaches.

But turn that logic around for a moment. What new devices might fuel cells or some other order-of-magnitude improvement in power storage enable, that aren’t even possible today? What could emerge, once we have a “battery” (and a fuel cell is really just an open-ended sort of battery) that is good for multiple days of heavy use, not hours or minutes? This is only one example, and I suspect there are a number of others in development, including some for customers who would rather keep their existence quiet.

Putting fuel cells in laptops and cellphones may not do much to speed the day when you can buy a practical and affordable fuel cell car. But entirely new devices that capitalize on the potential of fuel cells to put out more power for longer periods, particularly if they create a premium price market for larger fuel cells, could be the missing enabler. Something like a giant, autonomous fuel cell vacuum cleaner, ten times the size of the Roomba and capable of cleaning an auditorium instead of your living room, might actually be the way to hasten the arrival of fuel cell cars.

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