UK company Intelligent Energy believes it has come up with a technology — based on hydrogen fuel cells — that will allow millions of people across Africa with no access to electricity or an unreliable supply of power to keep their mobile phones charged.
The company used the Africa Com event in Cape Town this week to take the wraps off the US$200 (about R2 000) hydrogen-powered Upp fuel cell, which can be used to power USB-compatible gadgets, including smartphones, feature phones, e-readers and digital cameras. It claims its solution will provide up to a week’s worth of charge — about five recharges — to the typical smartphone user.
Amar Samra, MD of Intelligent Energy’s consumer electronics division, tells TechCentral that the company has been piloting the Upp system in Africa for the past year with telecommunications operators and with end consumers, studying how they use the product. He believes Africa is the right place to launch the system given that for many people on the continent, the mobile phone is the only gateway to the Internet and they are therefore much more reliant on it than people in developed markets.
Samra expects that consumers will find other uses for the fuel cells, including powering USB-based fans and LED lights.
Upp has two components: a reusable fuel cartridge and a fuel cell. The cell has an on/off button and a standard-sized USB port. The cartridge uses metal hydride technology and needs to be topped up with hydrogen using a special machine after it has been fully discharged. Intelligent Energy plans to make these recharging machines available through operator partners, which will supply them to retail outlets. Consumers will be able to buy refilled cartridges over the counter for less than US$5, meaning the typical smartphone recharge will cost about $1. “Our focus has been on reducing that cost,” Samra says.
Cartridges can be refuelled 200 times before they need to be replaced.
Intelligent Energy has developed applications for iOS and Android, too, allowing consumers to see how full or empty their cartridges are. The app also warns them when it’s time to exchange a cartridge and even shows USB voltage and current levels.
Future iterations of the app will offer a location-based service. When a user is out of fuel, it will guide them to the nearest location where they can exchange their cartridge for a full one.
Samra says Intelligent Energy is in talks with local operators about launching the product in South Africa and other markets. He says the advantage for operators is that their customers will be connected to their networks more often and they will then hopefully spend more money on telecoms services as a result.
He expects the Upp to go on sale in its first market before the end of the year. Intelligent Energy has registered 550 patents related to the product.
Samra emphasises that the Upp is the first iteration of the technology. “Next generations will be smaller,” he says. “The size will shrink and costs will come down. In fact, the technology lends itself entirely to be inside a phone. It is feasible to have this technology part of the phone. It might be no bigger than an aspirin pill in future.” — (c) 2013 NewsCentral Media