UPP fuel cell gadget charger: Personal portable power from hydrogen (Review)

UPP fuel cell charger

This small hydrogen fuel cell charger promises a week of clean power for your gadgets. But is it ready for prime time?

Keeping our mobile gadgets powered used to mean carrying extra batteries with us, but with the current trend of building devices which have non-removable rechargeable batteries, we now have to either bring a spare battery pack to charge the internal gadget battery, carry a portable solar charger with us, or find an outlet to sit nearby while we get recharged. And until we get supercapacitors in our mobile devices, or a new type battery technology emerges that that can double the capacity of our gadgets, we'll continue to need ways to charge our gadgets while out and about.

Advances in fuel cell technology have made another mobile power option available, namely the UPP hydrogen-powered personal fuel cell, which just launched in the UK and is soon coming to the US. While the UPP charger certainly isn't the first personal fuel cell on the market, it is the latest entry to the crowded mobile power market, and could be a viable option for some offgrid applications.

Although I'm more likely to cover and review solar chargers, I was recently approached by UPP about their new device, and got to spend some time using the fuel cell charger in my daily routine. Here's my review of this futuristic device.

The UPP charger, rated at 5V 5W 1A, consists of two parts, the fuel cell block (which generates the electricity via its Proton Exchange Membrane) and the cartridge (which supplies the hydrogen to the fuel cell block). Connecting the two and powering the device up is quick and easy, as a magnetic catch helps to correctly align the two pieces and hold them together while in operation, and a single on/off button controls the device. All that's necessary to begin using it is to remove the dust cap (also magnetic) and replace it with a cartridge, turn it on, and plug in any mobile device to the USB port.

My first impression of the UPP charger is that it's kind of big and heavy. With the cartridge in place, it weighs in at about 1.34 lb, and measures about 9.5" long by 1.6" x 1.9", so it's not exactly made to fit in your pocket or go with you on a long backpacking trip. Because the cartridge should be removed from the fuel cell when it's not in use, it's not quite as long when transporting it, but then you've still got to store and carry both of the pieces, so I'm not sure that's an advantage.

The operation of the UPP fuel cell charger is fairly quiet, although not nearly as silent as a solar charger or charging from a spare battery pack, as the device does emit a small amount of noise from the internal fan, as well as a regular clicking noise (which I understand to be from the venting of water vapor during operation). While this small amount of noise isn't noticeable when there's other background noise present, it's probably not desirable if you're using it while you're trying to sleep (your mileage may vary - some people can sleep through anything, but I like it quiet when I'm sleeping).

The UPP device charges gadgets as quickly as a standard wall charger does, at least on my older iPhone 4S, and the fuel cartridges, which store hydrogen in a metal hydride medium, are rated at 25 Wh, which is said to be enough power for one week's power (though that is highly variable, due to differences in mobile devices and usage).

An accompanying app, available for both iOS and Android platforms, isn't necessary to use the device, but it does offer a variety of information about the amount of hours remaining on the cartridge, the current state of charge on the device being powered (estimated hours of time available, depending on how the device is being used), and an array of "Geek Stats" (voltage and current output) during charging. The UPP app also has a "Find UPP" feature for locating the nearest place to get another cartridge, as well as access to the charge settings (including what level of charge needs to be reached on the mobile device to power off the UPP unit).

I asked about the legality/safety of flying with one of the UPP devices, and according to the company, you are allowed to carry the fuel cell and up to two spare cartridges in the aircraft cabin, but not in checked baggage.

To be honest, I really wanted to love this device. I mean, hydrogen fuel cell for mobile power? That's straight out of the Jetsons. And while it doesn't require recharging from an electrical outlet, the UPP does require cartridges, which can't be refilled at home (or anywhere except through UPP, I believe), but which have to be bought from a retailer or online. I'd love to say that hydrogen fuel cells are clean and green, and while the UPP is clean and green while it's charging (no pollution at the point of use), manufacturing the fuel cells and cartridges and filling them isn't necessarily clean or green.

Upp does address the issue of the source of the hydrogen (natural gas), but not the environmental footprint of the cartridges or fuel cells:

"If the hydrogen is burned in an internal combustion engine there is no real benefit, if the hydrogen is fed into a PEM fuel cell, with its much higher efficiencies, the amount of carbon dioxide produced can be much less. Well-to-wheel, using hydrogen produced from natural gas to feed a fuel cell produces 30% – 50% less carbon dioxide than just burning the fuel to provide the same amount of energy." - UPP

Currently, the UPP fuel cell charger and cartridge bundle will available in the UK this fall for £149 (and soon to be available in major US retailers at a rumored $200), and exchanging an empty cartridge for a full one will cost £5.95 each. According to the company, when the device is launched in the US, refill cartridges will cost $10 (with the exchange of an empty one).

Find out more about the UPP fuel cell charger at the company website.

[Edit: I originally wrote that replacement cartridges cost £9.95 in the UK, but the correct price is actually £5.95, and has been changed in the article. I also found out the device isn't yet available in the UK until the fall, and have changed that as well.]

[Disclosure: I was loaned a review model of the UPP device, but all opinions here, as well as any factual errors, are mine alone.]

Tags: Fuel Cells | Gadgets


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