Tiny Fuel Cells - 01/29/98

Jan. 29, 1998 - http://www.abcnews.com/sections/scitech/dye40/index.html
Special to ABCNEWS.com

Bob Hockaday believes he is on the brink of revolutionizing the consumer electronics industry with tiny fuel cells that could power our gadgets for weeks without 'recharging.' But there was a time when he stood at the edge of a precipice.

As an inquisitive high school student a quarter-century ago, he scavenged up some spare parts and built his first fuel cell. "It caught on fire in my mother's oven," he says.

Undaunted, and apparently undiscouraged by a very understanding mom, Hockaday continued to pursue what many regarded as a foolish dream. He was intrigued by the fact that fuel cells, which produce electricity by electrochemically combining hydrogen and oxygen without combustion, have almost 100 percent efficiency. They are at the forefront of science today because any believe they could power pollution-free cars of the future.

A fuel cell is not a battery, which stores electrical energy and has a relatively short lifetime. A fuel cell contains chemical energy, which is converted to electricity, and the cell remains viable as long as fuel is supplied.

Thinking Small

What set Hockaday apart from the mainstream research is his quest for a fuel cell so small it could fit into a cellular phone, and so efficient it could run the phone for 50 times longer than a conventional battery.

The problem was, nobody knew how to make a fuel cell that small. Fuel cells convert chemical energy in a fuel, such as methanol or alcohol, to electrical energy by creating a circuit through which electrons in the fuel travel from a negative to a positive electrode. The rate at which the fuel flows is critical to the performance of the cell, so some sort of mechanical device that controls the flow is essential. And that, so everyone thought, meant you had to have a substantial piece of equipment.

Years after the incident in his mother's kitchen, Hockaday returned to the problem while writing his master’s thesis in mechanical engineering. What if it were possible to etch microscopic pores in thin films of plastic that could control the rate of flow in a tiny cell?

He thought it was a great idea, but everybody has to make a living, so Hockaday began working in diagnostic physics at Los Alamos National Laboratory in the mountains of New Mexico. Fortunately, his wife, who is also a physicist at the lab, turned out to be as understanding as his mother, because she soon found the floor of their apartment littered with stuff as Hockaday pursued his dream on his own time.

Medicine to the Rescue The breakthrough, he says, came from the world of medicine. "It started out with a material called nuclear pore," he says. "It's actually used to filter blood through very precise pores made by irradiating plastic." The process used to manufacture that material, Hockaday realized, would allow him to "etch" pores into plastic that would be exactly the right size to control the flow of fuel through a miniature cell.

"I said, 'Hey, that's pretty nice,' he says. 'I can control the flow down to a microscopic level." Visions of his own manufacturing plant that would turn out tons of plastic film with microscopic pores at a cheap price danced through his head. That could lead to fuel cells that could allow a person to talk on a cellular phone for 200 hours instead of two, and the user could “recharge” the device by simply inserting a small canister of new fuel.

His supervisors at Los Alamos were so intrigued by his extracurricular work that they gave him a leave of absence to pursue his dream.

Little Interest in Small Battery

But there was a problem, he says. When he went out to major manufacturing companies, he always got the same reaction. "They said, 'You don't build fuel cells that way,' he says. It seems everybody was thinking in terms of large fuel cells that could power automobiles, and Hockaday's breakthrough was viewed as “radical technology."

So Hockaday started his own one-man company, Energy Related Devices, Inc., and evicted his three kids from their playroom in the basement of their home to make room for expansion. But he knew he could never make a go of it without outside help.

Guerrilla Benefactor

As luck would have it, Marvin Maslow, president of Manhattan Scientifics, Inc., of New York, happened to drop by the Los Alamos lab. Maslow, a former banker who practices what he calls 'guerrilla entrepreneurship,' had helped about a dozen enterprises get started, and he was intrigued when scientists at the lab told him about Hockaday's research.

A few days ago, with witnesses including brass from the lab and even a U.S. senator, Maslow presented Hockaday with a check for $500,000; half of his company's commitment to the fuel cell project.

Hockaday, who has put nearly everything he has earned into the project while his family lived off his wife's income, is now moving out of his kids playroom and will soon begin hiring others to make his dream come true.

They will have a long ways to go, but Hockaday says he has "no doubt at all that we can do it."

Cutting It Down to Size

His prototype produces only enough electricity to keep a battery charged. Making it smaller and more powerful, he says, is only a matter of scale. "We will do it through brutal engineering," he quipped. "We know exactly where we want to hammer." Hockaday's work has been endorsed by the Los Alamos lab, one of the nation's leading research centers, which brokered the agreement between Hockaday and Maslow.

Hockaday distinguished himself in the lab's weapons program, and he won two Awards of Excellence and a Distinguished Performance Award for his work on lab projects. With two patents to his name and a third on the way, Hockaday hopes to have fuel cells available to power all sorts of portable devices within a couple of years.

That will free people of the need to recharge their batteries every couple of hours or so, he says, and he believes it will revolutionize consumer electronics.

Of course, it also could mean that the batteries in urban boom boxes will never run down.....