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