I’ve recently become more acutely aware that our insatiable appetite for mobile devices has a darker side than the more obvious negatives of consumerism and purported social decay. The environmental, political and humanitarian cost of producing devices such as mobile phones, portable computers and so on is no great secret – it’s widely reported that the toxic chemicals involved with the manufacturing of consumer electrical goods are damaging to the environment and that certain labour processes exist which regard profit margins as paramount and the welfare of their workforce as uninteresting and relatively insignificant.
Sam Kean highlights in his fantastic book, ‘The Disappearing Spoon’, that more than 5 million people have died in Congo since the mid-1990s as a direct result of the conflicts over the mining of coltan. Coltan (or columbite–tantalite) is the raw, dull black mineral from which tantalum and niobium are extracted – both used widely in industry. Tantalum is primarily used in the manufacture of electrical devices due to its ability to store charge efficiently coupled with high volumetric efficiency allowing for miniaturisation. In fairness to the manufacturers, it seems like we’ve come a long way since the late ‘90s when the Rwandan Army were reportedly making circa US$20 million per month from coltan mining in Congo. Even though it cost more, manufacturers began buying tantalum and niobium from more politically stable mining regions (e.g. Australia, Canada and Brazil).
Nonetheless, with the variety of toxic chemicals involved and the inherent difficulties in recycling batteries as we know them, the whole picture really isn’t very pretty. So where do we go from here?
Well, hydrogen fuel cells have been in the press for a few years now. As reported in the Telegraph, “The technology has long been touted as a potential power source for cleaner cars.” However, Apple has now filed two patents with the US Patent & Trademark Office for the use of hydrogen fuel cells to power mobile devices (specifically: “Fuel Cell System to Power a Portable Computing Device” and “Fuel Cell System Coupled to a Portable Computing Device”).
While the patent application does not necessarily mean that this technology has yet been developed into feasible working products for consumers, nor is there any timeline indicated for when we might expect to see hydrogen powered mobile products in the consumer market – the implications are very positive from an environmental perspective.
“continuing reliance on fossil fuels has forced [fusion_builder_container hundred_percent=”yes” overflow=”visible”][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”no” center_content=”no” min_height=”none”][the US] government to maintain complicated political and military relationships with unstable governments in the Middle East, and has also exposed our coastlines and our citizens to the associated hazards of offshore drilling…These problems have led to an increasing awareness and desire on the part of consumers to promote and use renewable energy sources”.
To be clear, the environmental implications for generating hydrogen fuel cells is not presently quite as ‘clean’ as manufacturers would like us to believe. Hydrogen as a fuel really just acts as a carrier of energy, not as an energy source. Currently, methane or other fossil fuels are used to produce it (only 4% of hydrogen is generated using renewable methods) – however, there is no reason why renewable energy sources (such as wind or solar power) could not be used to manufacture hydrogen fuel. And it’s worth it…burning hydrogen releases 3 x more energy than from the same volume of methane, so it’s a more ‘concentrated’ fuel. So there is scope to produce a truly green portable (and efficient!) energy source.
Additionally, obtaining energy from a hydrogen fuel cell has no impact on the environment. As with hydrogen-powered cars, the only waste produced from converting hydrogen and oxygen in hydrogen fuel cells into electrical energy is water. Coupled with the fact that this type of battery would be lighter and far more energy efficient – and not involve the same degree of toxic chemicals in manufacturing – the benefits seem clear. Apple have said that:
“Such fuel cells and associated fuels can potentially achieve high volumetric and gravimetric energy densities, which can potentially enable continued operation of portable electronic devices for days or even weeks without refuelling”.
From my position as an avid festival attendee, the idea that I can use my phone for an entire weekend without having to consider the battery depleting and queuing for charging stations is obviously very appealing; especially if the environmental impact is considerably less.
So it may be a while before products of this nature are available and it’s still unclear if the initial costs will be prohibitive to achieve widespread market penetration – but the future is, potentially, rather bright.
More information and references:
- The Telegraph, Apple plots smartphones powered by hydrogen
- Daily Mail, Apple has plans to use hydrogen in batteries allowing iPhones and iPods to hold a charge for WEEKS
- PGiGreenBlog, Hydrogen Fuel Cells May Soon Replace Batteries in Apple Devices
- More information about tantalum from Azom
- Seeing Is Believing, Cellphones Fuel Congo Conflict
- Sam Kean, The Disappearing Spoon, 2010 (http://samkean.com/disappearing-spoon)
- Wikipedia, this article on hydrogen vehicles article discusses the manufacture of hydrogen as a fuel (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hydrogen_vehicle)
- Huge thanks to my dear friend, Sujata Kundu, for taking time away from her PhD thesis to check the science in this article.