All-in-one rechargeable batteries for LMRs
At best, the need to recharge an LMR radio is an inconvenience, taking the device — and often its user — out of action for a temporary period. At worst, the need to recharge can be debilitating when no recharging option is available, transforming a valued communications tool into a useless brick.
But these unwanted scenarios could become obsolete in the near future, as Motorola and micro-fuel-cell developer Tekion complete their joint development of a hybrid power solution for portable radios that uses fuel-cell technology to augment and extend the life of LMR radio batteries. As the traditional battery — a lithium-ion battery is used in the prototype — is drained of energy, the fuel-cell cartridge recharges the battery, said Tom Pack, director of business development for Motorola Ventures.
“Toshiba thinks you can get enough energy to draw the energy straight from a fuel cell, but we think you’re going to need a battery,” Pack said.
Untouched, this configuration is expected to power an LMR radio twice as long as current lithium-ion batteries. In addition, additional power is only as far away as a replacement fuel-cell cartridge — hot-swappable, as long as the battery still has power — or a fuel refill.
And the fuel used in the Tekion/Motorola prototype is formic acid, a mixture of carbon monoxide and water, said Neil Huff, president and CEO of Tekion. Not only is formic acid a commodity, it is non-flammable — a feature that was a key requirement for first responders who frequently operate near fires and other combustible environments.
“We’ve actually tried to light it with a torch, but it doesn’t light,” Huff said. “In a lot of ways, it’s actually safer, because the fuel cell manages the battery.”
Indeed, to prevent combustion inside the radio, the fuel cell does not provide additional energy to batteries that have temperatures above 45° Celsius, so the thermal-runaway issues that have occurred in laptops do not become an issue for LMR radios. Another advantage of the solution is that it weighs about half as much as a clamshell containing 12 AA batteries.
Motorola recognized the need for alternative power sources after seeing first responders struggle following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when the electric grids in many areas were disabled, Pack said. “During Katrina, you could ship a lot of radios down to them, but how are you going to charge them?” he said.
A few months later, Motorola announced that it had invested in Tekion, a startup based in Canada that licensed fuel-cell technology developed by the University of Illinois in 2003 and designed to provide power to handheld devices independent of the power grid.
“Tekion certainly has the fuel-cell expertise, but we have the product-development expertise,” Pack said, noting that developing a fuel-cell solution that meets demanding first-responder specifications was not easy. “It took longer than we thought. We thought that in mid-summer 2006 we’d be done with this. Then reality hit.”
Assuming Motorola and Tekion meet public safety’s specifications, the hybrid battery/fuel-cell solution is promising, said John Powell, senior consulting engineer for the National Public Safety Telecommunications Council (NPSTC).
“From a performance perspective, give it to us in no larger form factor or weight than it has today — with a similar performance and capacity — [and] you’ve got a winner if it’s something you can recharge by sticking a tube into it and, in a minute, you’re ready to go again,” Powell said. “Compare that to spending three hours using a charger and that’s a win, even if you only use it for specific incidents.”
In addition, using fuel cells to recharge LMR radios should be much better for the environment than clamshells, Powell said.
“The first thing that happens when you get a wildfire these days is you order a palette of AA batteries,” he said. “When you look at these fire camps after a big fire, you’ll see AA batteries scattered all over the countryside.”
While the hybrid LMR power prototype has been developed, Motorola and Tekion have not determined when the technology will be commercially available. Meanwhile, Tekion — currently trying to secure its fourth round of funding — has developed a fuel-cell charger for commercial handheld devices that have a peak energy draw of 5 watts or less that is scheduled to be launched as a product in the first quarter.
“We’re not trying to replace the battery,” said David McLeod, Tekion’s vice president of marketing and business development. “We just wanted to keep the user from having to have access to a wall plug, because then you’re not really mobile.”