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  Vecta on Mobile Power Sources
  It used to be our mobile phones that ran out of juice just as we were making that crtitical call; our laptops and smartphones still begin bleating about low power just as we need to use some spare minutes to finish off an overdue report.

Getting rechargable batteries ahead of the power consumption curve is not easy; but maybe a solution is on the horizon in the form of batteries that are refillable with cheap, readily available, organic materials.

  Fuel cells generate cheap, clean, energy using electrochemical reactions. Fuel cell powered phones and laptops would be lighter and more convenient to use as they can be topped up as and when necessary. They also have environmental benefits as their fuel comes from sustainable organic sources and their by-products are water and modest amounts of carbon dioxide.

A fuel cell exploits the chemical interaction between hydrogen and oxygen to produce water, heat and electrical energy. Typically, a fuel cell consists of a pair of electrodes (the 'anode' and the 'cathode') that are separated by a membrane that allows protons (hydrogen ions), but not an electric current, to pass through. Catalysts, often made of platinum, are used to increase the reaction rate and the amount of electrical energy produced.

The main problem with applying fuel cell concepts to personal electronics appliances is the relatively large common surface area that is needed between the electrodes and the membrane, requiring novel techniques to be developed so as to increase the effective surface area. For example, to obtain around 300mA of current using conventional fuel cell technologies requires a common surface area of around 60 square centimeters, much larger than is available in a mobile phone.

An alternative approach is the use of a microorganism to transfer electrons directly onto an electrode as it metabolizes sugar into electricity, producing carbon dioxide as a byproduct.

Recent research has found an organism capable of converting 80% of the sugar's energy into electricity; enough, theoretically to generate 1KWhr from a cupful of sugar but improvements are necessary, in both output voltage and generation rate, before the process can be commercialised.

  Limited endurance of mobile power sources limits the time we can "wirelessly" use our power-hungry personal electronic appliances, forcing us to return our appliances to a power socket where they must stay for several hours before reuse. Developments in miniature fuel cells over the next few years look set to liberate these devices to be refuelled as and when necessary much like a cigarette lighter - an interesting business opportunity for cigarette lighter manufacturers worried about the possible demise of cigarette smoking perhaps?

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