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New power source for portable electronic devices

14 July 2009 Southampton, University of

Microfluidic fuel cells could provide the necessary energy to provide continuous power to remote sensors, mobile phones and laptops, according to a University of Southampton student, who will graduate on Friday (17 July).

Microfluidics deals with the behavior, precise control and manipulation of fluids that are geometrically constrained to a small, typically sub-millimeter, scale.

As part of his final year project, Daniel Spencer, who has just completed an MEng in Electronic Engineering at the University's School of Electronics and Computer Science, conducted a literature review to look at how energy harvesting devices or an energy store could be provided so that portable electronic devices could have continuous power on demand. His supervisor was Professor Hywel Morgan, Professor of Bioelectronics at ECS.

'Currently, since energy harvesting cannot provide the necessary energy continuously, energy must be stored,' Daniel said. 'This is usually in the form of batteries which provide electricity on demand. However as portable devices become more powerful, higher capacity energy storage solutions are required.'

According to Daniel, microfluidic cells offer a solution to this problem, utilising the chemical bond energy stores in fuels with high calorific values such as methanol.

A fuel cell is capable of converting chemical energy from a fuel into electric energy. The simplest device, a polymer electrolyte membrane (PEM) fuel cell uses the electrochemical reaction of a fuel and oxidant to generate an electric current.

Daniel's research has revealed that more work is needed for integration of fuel cells into a complete system and he plans to do a PhD in Microfluidics to develop his research further. In the meantime, Sharp Corporation is currently deploying a Direct Methanol Fuel Cell system, the timescale for which is unknown.

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