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Battery of the Future: UNF Pioneering Fuel-Cell Technology

What good is a laptop if the battery dies during a battle? The military doesn’t want to find out. The military wants its battlefield computers to have batteries that last.

Fortunately, the University of North Florida is working to help the army achieve that goal. UNF recently received $2 million in defense funding to develop a prototype for a direct methanol fuel-cell-powered laptop to be used by the United States military, allowing soldiers to have all-day power supply and wireless mobile computing.

UNF is spearheading the project in partnership with PolyFuel, a California-based fuel cell membrane engineering company. The team will work to develop technologies to extend the run time and reduce logistical requirements for military laptop computers. UNF mechanical engineering professor Dr. Jim Fletcher, along with several UNF undergraduate and graduate students and some University of Florida graduate students, will be researching and developing the prototype in a three-year study.

“This defense project is a real opportunity for UNF’s School of Engineering to work with high-tech partners,” said Fletcher, the lead researcher on the fuel cell project. “It also shows the commitment and support by the University’s administration to develop the School of Engineering as a leader in the community.”

Direct-methanol fuel cells are emerging as the technology of choice to enable continuous operation of critical national security and commercial systems. Currently, soldiers go into battle with several pounds of batteries. Most consumer and military laptops use traditional lithium-ion batteries, which use heavy metals and need to be recharged.

For soldiers, that means carrying extra batteries and weight to stay in the field. “This project will help soldiers extend their missions, lighten their weight and improve overall functionality,” Fletcher said.

Direct methanol fuel cell devices offer higher energy density, reduced weight and extended run-time than conventional battery alternatives. Methanol (wood alcohol) creates a chemical reaction when put in a fuel cell. The methanol is stored in cartridges, which weigh less and can be easily transported and used for an extra power boost that traditional lithium-ion batteries can’t equal.

A laptop powered by direct methanol fuel cells can operate 10 times longer than one using traditional batteries. Soldiers will be able to pop in a cartridge containing liquid methanol and literally refuel their laptop computers as opposed to taking the time to recharge their batteries.

Not only will the military benefit from the research project by getting a more efficient laptop to carry into battle, the fuel-cell project presents a remarkable opportunity for UNF students to gain valuable hands-on experience.

“Being a part of research related to alternative energy sources is a great place to be today because it’s an issue with global concerns,” said UNF engineering grad student Jason Carryl. “The opportunity to work with a high-tech company like PolyFuel will only enhance my career in engineering. Anytime you’re working in a research environment, there is the possibility of gaining new insights into issues outside the scope of the project.”

The defense project kicked off this summer and will be conducted in three phases. The UNF research team will take the current military laptop design and improve it to meet military specifications. Once a prototype is redesigned, testing the device will occur in the lab and out in the field.