Retailer Brookstone will sell a portable fuel cell able to charge smartphones a dozen times before running out.
Fuel cell maker Lilliputian Systems today announced that Brookstone will be the first retailer to carry its portable USB power source, which will be sold under Brookstone's brand. The fuel cell device is about the size of a thick smartphone, and the lighter fluid-filled cartridges are about the same size as a cigarette lighter.
It's a big step forward both for Lilliputian Systems, a 10-year-old spin-off from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and for portable fuel cell technology in general. Several fuel cell companies have developed portable power systems, but a number have failed.
The new fuel cell will charge any device that has a USB cable.
Pricing for the Brookstone fuel cell itself was not disclosed but the cartridges themselves, which are made of plastic and hold butane, will cost a few dollars, or "about the same as coffee from Starbucks," said Mouli Ramani, vice president of business development at Lilliputian Systems. The product will be tested with users this year and the company expects to announce specific dates on availability later this year, he said.
People will be able to buy refills and fuel cells online, through Brookstone catalogs, or at stores. When the fuel cartridges are empty, they can be recycled through municipal recycling programs, Ramani said.
Lilliputian expects the first customers will be early technology adopters but then the appeal of portable power will attract more people, such as travelers, college students, and even teenagers who spend a lot of time with portable gaming machines. "Anyone who wants to be liberated from sticking a phone into a wall outlet," he said.
Unique technology inside the fuel cell allows for longer charge time than previous portable fuel cells gives, Ramani said.
The company is the first to deposit a solid oxide fuel cell membrane onto a silicon wafer, he explained. Investor Intel has retrofitted a fab in Hudson, Mass., to make specially structured silicon chips with Lilliputian's membrane imprinted on them.
"The problem of all the other (previous) devices, which usually used methanol or sodium borohydride, is that when they actually built the product, it was not any better than carrying a lithium ion battery around," he said.
Lilliputian's fuel cell will be able to fully charge, for example, an iPhone 4 between 10 and 14 times with one cartridge, Ramani said. That can mean a couple weeks of use for many people, he noted.
The cartridges, which will be made by cigarette lighter makers, can be carried on airplanes. The company is seeking distribution with other retailers.
Updated on May 9 to clarify product availability, which the company expects to announce later this year.