At first glance, the 2008 International Consumer Electronics Show doesn't seem the place to find technology applicable to first responder or homeland security users, but combing through 1.8 million square feet of exhibit space revealed a few new, potentially beneficial products that are either in the production pipeline or already in operation.

Everyone, it seems, is taking a crack at building a better battery. For instance, ZPower has taken silver-zinc battery technology into the 21st century by introducing composite materials and nanotechnology.

Silver-zinc batteries have been around for decades. “[They] were used in the space program,” said Ross Duber, president and CEO of ZPower. “They were found in Gemini and the early Apollo missions and powered the lunar rovers.”

But though they offered high power density and weren't flammable, early silver-zinc batteries didn't recharge well over many cycles, making them impractical for daily use, something that ZPower has addressed, according to Duber. “You get up to 30% more power than a lithium-ion battery,” he said, adding that the Department of Transportation “has blessed us as being safe for airline use — we're not restricted for carriage like lithium batteries.”

Silver-zinc batteries also are “green,” as up to 80% of their contents can be recycled to make another battery, unlike lithium- and nickel-based products. Duber said the company plans to offer a trade-in credit on old batteries. “We can reuse the metals again and again,” he said, adding that ZPower has landed its first design win with a major computer manufacturer. The battery will appear in a high-end laptop this summer, with applications for cell phones — and perhaps mobile handsets — to follow. Investors in the company include Intel and OnPoint Technologies, a technology venture investment fund created to support the U.S. Army.

While there will likely be a price premium for silver-zinc, Duber anticipates it won't be “a drastic increase” when compared to a lithium-ion battery.

By this fall, recharging batteries in the field will be made easier thanks to a Singapore-based company better known for toys. Horizon Fuel Cell Technologies started out by making model race cars to demonstrate its hydrogen fuel cell equipment and expanded into exploring a wide range of power-generation solutions.

Scheduled to ship in October, the HydroPak Portable Power Product is being looked over by a variety of original equipment manufacturers because of its simplicity and safety. “Our first applications will be for disaster preparedness, [and] also as an APU [auxiliary power unit] for recreational vehicles” said Taras Wankewycz, vice president of Horizon.

Expected to retail for $400, the HydroPak uses a disposable plastic cartridge filled with dry sodium borohydride powder. “You use it as you would a coffee machine. Add any kind of water — you don't have to use clean water,” Wankewycz said. “A $20 cartridge gives you 270 watt hours of energy. Buy five of them and you get one kilowatt.” Once activated, power is available for up to 30 days.

Adding water to the environmentally benign powder generates hydrogen, which is piped directly into the company's fuel cell to generate power. “A used cartridge is nontoxic,” Wankewycz said. “Just dump it in the garbage. Operation is quiet and the device doesn't emit any harmful gases, so it can be run indoors.”

Weighing 4 pounds with dimensions of 8.6 by 8.2 by 3.9 inches, the HydroPak provides 25 watts of continuous power and 50 watts of peak power, delivering it through a 110 volt AC port and two USB ports at 5 volts DC power. About the only operations limitation is at low temperatures, due to its water-using design. “Below-zero [Celsius] operations wouldn't be a good thing,” Wankewycz said. “Operation at 40° to 50° C is not a problem.”

In response to sales channel requests, Horizon is developing a HydroPak Mini for future sales. Designed to charge a small portable electronic device such as a PDA or phone, the hypothetical device would cost around $20 and deliver up to 15 watt hours of power for up to a week of use with a $3 dollar disposable cartridge. Just add water.