BOSTON, Mass. – “The goal is to get off the wall,” says Professor Sanjeev Mukerjee of Northeastern’s chemistry department when he talks about his work developing long-lasting, non-polluting fuel cells. Getting “off the wall,” he explains, means no more plugging in, no more cell phone battery chargers, and no more looking for an outlet for laptops, digital cameras or PDAs. Mukerjee and the firm Protonics have already been contracted by the military to develop portable fuel cells for soldiers in the field. In a future that may be as close as ten years away, Mukerjee envisions small, light, portable cartridges that will easily generate 5,000 hours of power – a far cry from today’s rechargeable batteries. And when the cartridge, powered by clean hydrogen or methanol, is empty, he says, it can be tossed and replaced without ever needing a wall socket.
Mukerjee is a big dreamer, and his dreams are moving rapidly toward reality in the form of two recent start-ups that are putting his ideas into practice. The young firms, Protonics Corp and Integrated Fuel Cell Inc., are working with Mukerjee to create different kinds of fuel cells, including the much-vaunted hydrogen fueled car. That dream may be decades away, says Mukerjee, but they are much closer, he believes, to powering small, personal devices with disposable cartridges. The fuel cells that Protonics is developing for the U.S. military would power the high-tech gear like GPS and night-vision goggles that rapidly suck battery power and weigh down the troops.
Integrated Fuel Cell, Inc. is working on an automotive fuel cell, concentrating on methanol as the reactive ingredient. Methanol, like hydrogen, has no polluting by-products. It is extracted from coal or natural gas, and has the advantage, at about 46 cents per gallon, of being far cheaper than oil and independent of oil-related politics.
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