Cleantech Market Intelligence
The Specter of Fuel Cells at Apple Rises Again
Just about anything to do with the tech company Apple gets a lot of press attention. But for some reason Apple and fuel cell patents in the same sentence tend to have a multiplier.
In January 2011, the company was granted a patent for the use of liquid metal in bipolar plates. (Please don’t ask me why this is important, as I really don’t know.) OK great, one patent. Then in October 2011 Apple was “rumored” to be patenting fuel cell stack designs for the MacBook. After all, as we all know, sizes counts, for fuel cells as with everything else. Published by the United States Patent and Trademark Office, the applications were “Parallel Fuel Stack Architecture” (US 2011/0256463) and “Reduced-Weight Fuel Cell Plate” (US 2011/0256465). Now in December, it has come to light that Apple has applied for two more patents: “Fuel Cell System to Power a Portable Computing Device” (US 2011/0311895) and “Fuel Cell System Coupled to a Portable Computing Device” (US 2011/0313589).
So, one patent granted and four more we know of that Apple has applied for. If Apple gets them that makes five – five patents in the United States for the use of fuel cells for portable Apple devices.
According to the recent FuelCellToday Patent Survey, 2010 saw a global total of 1,801 patents granted on fuel cell technology. Looking at the top 10 assignees in 2010, companies with an active portable fuel cell program include Canon with 20 granted patents, Toshiba with 21, and Samsung with 140. Each of these companies has been working on integrating fuel cells into portable electronics for a number of years and each has amassed a patent portfolio in many areas. None of these companies has yet to release a commercial product.
So what does this mean for Apple? Apple is one company in a number working hard on developing a fuel cell system that can be integrated into a portable electronics system. If Apple’s patents are granted next year then expect to see another slew of headlines purporting to show that Apple will make fuel cells sexy. They won’t. They haven’t made batteries sexy so why should they make fuel cells sexy. Will Apple release a MacBook with an integrated fuel cell? Probably. When? Heaven only knows. The commercial launch dates for integrated fuel cells into laptops have been missed time and time again by other large electronic developers, so there is something holding up this market. Once that something is removed, or cleared, then we can expect to see a rush to market for many companies, and yes, probably including Apple.