Forecast and Outlook: The vision of personal power systems based on fuel packets and micro fuel cells is arguably the most disruptive concept of future energy systems in the world today. And yet it remains completely off the radar of most conversations about the future of energy.
The disruptive vision of energy access to anyone, anywhere in the world is two-fold:
- Fuel – Anyone in the world can buy clean, low cost fuel as long as they they have access to general retail markets. [e.g. you can buy safe packets of fuel next to a pack of gum.]
[*Fuels are developed via any/all primary resources from renewables to hydrocarbons. The main point here is that we are bringing fuels to the user, not to the power plant!]
- ‘Personal power plants‘ (e.g. micro fuel cells) sold via retail stores in all sizes: from those already embedded inside consumer products (e.g. phone), to a small portable $10 charger or a $100 appliance that can power your home. [Fuel cells convert hydrogen rich fuels into electrical energy] [Note: Bloom Energy just released its press on The Bloom Box, video!]
This is the vision, and not a snapshot of first generation products currently on the market! And I am not saying that we should abandon our accelerated focus on new forms of energy production or battery storage! Just realize that cheap renewable grid energy or better batteries does not solve issues of access and portability. We cannot forget about the role ‘fuels’ and power conversion devices play in the energy world!!
To provide energy access to anyone, anywhere in the world we must focus on increasing access to clean fuels and reducing the cost of fuel cell conversion devices.
Why micro fuel cells? Non-grid Access & Portability
Portable power systems are those that use fuels to produce electricity in a device that can be carried by an individual person. This notion goes beyond today’s grid-dependent rechargeable battery model to include micro fuel cells that convert hydrogen-rich chemical fuels into electricity.
Portable power can also be extended beyond people to the transportation sector for electric vehicles powered by batteries and fuel cells, and for remote auxiliary power (e.g. telecommunication towers).
Think of portable power systems as tiny power plants rather than storage devices like batteries. But there is a key difference in the deliver of fuels to the the user and the cost of converting that fuel into electricity…
Micro fuel cells by-pass the grid and bring fuels directly to the end user. Hydrogen rich chemical fuels come to market as small packets (e.g. small liquid containers of methanol, sponges of solid hydrogen). They are safe and operate at room temperature. And most importantly, can be bought and sold over a retail shelf. The ‘packet’ of fuel is bought and controlled by the user. No monthly contracts. If they want to pay a premium for renewable resource derived fuel packets, by all means!
Instead of relying on multi-billion dollar power plants, fuel cell conversion devices will be made using low cost manufacturing techniques. They are silent, have no moving parts and can be manufactured to any size/scale.
Portable power systems mean no need to access the grid. No need to fight with strangers over a wall socket in a café or airport. No need to hang wires from your new thin screen television. No need to have plugs built into your kitchen counter top because your toast and coffee maker do not need to be ‘plugged in’. They are all simply refueled.
How do we get there?
So how do we ‘unplug’ and access electricity away from the grid? By radically transforming the cost structure and business models associated with low cost packets of chemical fuels (e.g. methanol, hydrogen, et al) that can be sold over retail shelves, and micro fuel cells (energy conversion devices) that can be embedded in any and all objects or sold as stand alone micro power plants.
The road map to this future is largely dependent on our ability to translate our expanding knowledge of energy systems into nanoscale materials engineering and next generation manufacturing techniques.
Once major cost and production challenges are overcome, the marketplace dynamics for diffusion of micro fuel cells will not have to compete against the existing grid model. It can grow as fast as the user side demands. (e.g. it is a low end disruptive strategy that does not have to battle the incumbent).
Ummm, what if there is no current consumer demand?
Why I am not worried that consumers do not care about micro fuel cells!!
We are all familiar the essence of the anecdote of Henry Ford: “…if I would have asked my customers what they needed, they would have said a faster horse.’
Portable power receives virtually no attention within the media because micro fuel cells are simply not a viable option today! And most consumers can see no real world applications for energy beyond their current assumptions of what is possible with batteries and solar roof panels.
Most people have no idea how the internal combustion engine works, let alone the electrochemical principles of a micro fuel cell or the disruptive business model of distributed energy production.
Micro fuel cells occupy the same spot of consumer irrelevance that was held by the need for a horseless carriage when ‘my buggy works just fine thank you’, or the benefits of an ATM machine when ‘I really prefer to have human contact with my bank tellers, thank you’…. or demand during the early PC age when ‘… I don’t need a ‘home computer’ because I don’t need to do calculations at home, thank you.’
I do not expect consumer demand will lead this transition… nor do I expect it will come from within the existing energy industry.
I am not worried about what first generation micro fuel cells or solid hydrogen sponges can do today. I care where we think we might be in 2015, 2020, 2025.
Personal power systems will likely come from startups and entrepreneurs intent on creating new markets, not trying to add band aids to existing platforms. And I am fully confident that enough energy entrepreneurs in the micro fuel cell world see this same low end disruptive vision of putting power plants into the hands of consumers and bypassing the grid. I am also fully confident that chemical fuel providers will embrace and innovate to meet the high premium value and price placed on smaller bundled packages of energy.
Micro fuel cells (‘direct methanol’ and water activated powder versions) are expected to be brought to mass markets as batter rechargers soon after 2011. And I suspect the real time horizon of disruptive change will occur 2015-2030.
It took us half a century to build out the electrical infrastructure of the 20th century, and I don’t expect it will be threatened anytime soon!
For now, the best we can do is explore the implications of this vision for personal power systems, and continue to monitor latest breakthroughs in materials science and the efforts of startups to bring micro power solutions to early adopter markets such as the military and back up power market.
Micro Fuel cell companies (in no particular order):
- Ultracell Power
- Bloom Energy
- CMR (UK)
- Angstrom Power
- Smart Fuel Cell
- Lilliputian Power Systems
- Horizon Fuel Cells
Embracing New Assumptions: The Hype vs Vision of Portable Power
All new disruptive technology platforms must walk through the stages of the ‘Hype Cycle‘, and confront our natural tendency to overestimate short-term change, but underestimate the long term potential.
I am selling the long-term vision, not the short-term hype of personal energy systems! I am making a case that barriers can and should be overcome so that we can reap the benefits of distributed energy systems. So rather than describe a snapshot of first generation micro fuel cells (as they exist today), let’s embrace and explore a new set of assumptions:
- Retail access to energy!
The vision is: you can buy a packet of energy or micro power device next to a bar of soap or bag of rice whether you are in Walmart, Whole Foods or a tiny rural village in India. While visionaries try to put solar cells on every rooftop, don’t forget the role ‘fuels’ play in our energy system.
- We unplug everything!
Electricity consuming products are embedded with micro fuel. No more cords or plugs. No more grid dependency. You only need packets of fuel to keep your device running. (e.g. Every object contains within it a micro power plant that converts a fuel into electricity.)
- Fuel cell energy conversion devices!
Chemical energy is converted into electricity via low cost fuel cells that consist of stacks of ‘tin foil’ like membrane sheets, rather than large metal turbines at multi-million dollar power plants.
This means our electricity producing devices can be manufactured using industrial ‘ink jet’ printing machines and plastic casings, rather metal tooling machines. And they are quiet and have no moving parts!
Disrupting the Era of Grid Dependency
For most of human history all energy was local. Regionally available fuels (e.g. wood/biomass) were converted onsite (e.g. usually via fire) and controlled by the individual. This was expensive in terms of labor and environmental impact (goodbye forests, goodbye clean air) but did not require organized capital investment or complex ‘energy companies’.
Then humans figured out a way to master electrons- and the age of electricity was born. The only problem was that producing electricity was best handled in large power plants. Thus the electrical grid was born. And from that point forward access to electrical energy was based on a one-way stream of wires. And humans became dependent on a ‘grid’ for their access to energy.
Let’s focus on the model: fuels such as coal and natural gas are discovered, exploited, refined, transported, heated to boil water that spin turbines that create electricity that travel long distances over wires to a wall socket. Break that stream anywhere along the chain and the wall socket is useless.
Efficient? Hardly, more than half the energy is lost in the process.
Reliable? Yes and no. Even the .1% downtime of today’s modern grids cost tens of billions of dollars in lost economic productivity.
Cost effective? Yes!
Valued by users? Absolutely! (Unless you are talking about my portable gadgets! Or if I don’t have access to the grid!)
The energy marketplace lesson? Value and cost matter more than efficiency gains/losses.
Business models that make money beat the physics of energy loss.
(e.g. dear skeptics, stop trying to say hydrogen does not make sense because of laws of thermodynamics. Can you add value is the only question you must ask!]
So let’s focus on how we can create value for users in a way that makes the centralized grid model irrelevant! Rethink how we distribute fuels & convert them via distributed micro power plants!