PowerTrekk Charges Your iPhone by Magic. OK, Hydrogen & Water

| In-Depth Review

It's a good time to be a camping geek. There are scores of iOS apps to enhance your outdoors experience, from GPS trackers to star gazing apps to knot trying guides and more. If there's anyone out there still saying that tech has no place on a camping or hiking trip, they're just not paying attention.

Because Trees Don't Have Electrical Outlets

So what happens when using all those apps runs your battery down before you can figure out which bird is making that "chee-chee CHEE" call? Luckily, it's a good time for some pretty cool charging solutions too. Advancements in solar power technology have made portable panels much more efficient than even just a few years ago. But even with those advancements, it's pretty hard to charge with the sun when it's hiding behind the clouds -- or at night, for that matter.

A Swedish company called myFC (which stands for “my fuel cell”) has come up with what may well be the geekiest method ever for charging your gear in the wild. It's called the PowerTrekk: a hydrogen fuel cell that generates electricity using water as a fuel source. That sentence is so cool I have to write it again: a hydrogen fuel cell that generates electricity using water as a fuel cell. The process is described as the “conversion of hydrogen to electricity via a ‘proton exchange membrane,’” but I like to refer to it by its more common term: magic.

 

Practical Magic

The PowerTrekk is a smallish brick-sized plastic device that sports a removable lid, indicator lights and a USB port where the magic, I mean electricity, comes out. Removing the lid reveals two circular chambers (one with a plastic flap over the top) that look like miniature cup holders. One contains the water reservoir, which holds the tablespoon of water required to start the reaction; the other holds a "puck" containing the catalyst that reacts with the water to produce the hydrogen that in turn produces electricity. Once used, the catalyst is rendered an inert, sand-like substance that requires no special disposal -- although the company says the puck can be returned for recycling.

Each puck generates enough electricity to recharge an iPhone about two times, according to myFC, Our review unit did not come with full-capacity pucks, however, so we could not verify this. A 1500 mAh internal battery in the device captures the electricity and, if necessary, stores the excess charge.  Once begun, the process can't be halted, so each puck is good for a single use. A three-pack of pucks is expected to sell for US$9-10, according to myFC. In case you’re trekking destination requires air travel, the company says both the charger and pucks can be brought aboard an aircraft cabin.

The internal battery can also be charged through its USB port, so you can charge it at home using a wall outlet before your trip. It also allows you to charge your device from the internal battery rather than directly from the hydrogen cell. In our testing, this seemed to result in delivering a steadier charge to the iPhone, which reduced those irritating "Charging is not supported with this accessory" messages. This is common with solar panels and nearly drained external batteries as well.

The PowerTrekk delivered its charge immediately and at an impressive rate -- right on par with charging from a wall outlet. The device's manufacturers say the PowerTrekk's output is 5 watts -- the same as an iPhone charger -- and we saw no reason to doubt this. Although it can also power an iPad, performance will be similar to the trickle charge you'd get if you used an iPhone charger -- including the "Not charging" message while the iPad screen is on.

Charging with the PowerTrekk is completely silent; the only indication that the hydrogen/water reaction is taking place is through the lights on the device and the production of some water vapor. The manufacturer says the device might also get warm to the touch, but we didn't notice any increase in temperature during our testing.

The Future Comes at a Price

While the PowerTrekk is undeniably amazing technology, there are a few indications it may not be quite ready for prime time. The device itself lists for about $230 and each single use puck is about $3. For a lot less money and about the same weight, you could carry a rechargeable battery pack like GoalZero's Guide 10 Plus battery back and a couple extra sets of pre-charged rechargeable batteries, enough to get you through a full weekend of camping. For longer excursions, the cost/weight ratio may start to lean in favor of the PowerTrekk.

The Bottom Line

The PowerTrekk's method of generating clean electricity with a tablespoon of water is the stuff of science fiction. It also frees you from worrying about whether the weather will be cooperative enough to make solar power practical. The pucks and the device itself are lightweight and compact enough to make adding them to your load a non-issue.

Finally, the PowerTrekk's performance is great -- delivering an instant, fast and steady charge to your iPhone or other USB-powered device. The PowerTrekk is not available as of this posting, but the company says it should be in retail stores soon. REI will be the exclusive retail distributor in the U.S. when the product launches. A company representative told The Mac Observer that REI would offer the device at a $199 introductory price at launch.

__________________________

Contributing Editor Chuck La Tournous writes and speaks on camping technology issues and spends anywhere from 15 to 30 days a year in a tent. His “Tech vs. Wild” session for Macworld/iWorld was featured in the San Jose Mercury News and other publications. His new website, trailcamper.com is in open beta.

Product: PowerTrekk

Company: myFC

List Price: US$229 (list); $199 at launch.

Pros:

Fast, compact and lightweight; doesn't rely on the sun. Non-polluting. Can charge an iPhone twice per puck. Has its own internal battery to store a charge.

Cons:

Pricey, at least until technology matures. Pucks are not yet readily available.

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Comments

looper

Er, I hate to rain on the parade, but referring to this as “magic” makes it sound like it’s more of that “run your car on water” free-energy nonsense that shows up in ads all over the Interwebs whenever gasoline prices spike.  The stuff in the puck is not a “catalyst”—that’s something that is not changed by the chemical reaction it facilitates, like the platinum in a car’s catalytic converter that helps residual fuel and oxygen combine in a car’s exhaust and remains ready to do it over and over.  Rather, it is a consumable (sodium silicide) that combines with water to release hydrogen and in the process is converted to an “inert, sand-like substance.”  What this means is that the energy to charge your iPhone isn’t coming from water, let alone from “magic”; rather, it is consumed in manufacturing the stuff in the puck.  I have yet to hear of a process involving fuel cells that is anywhere near as efficient in terms of energy in vs. energy out as simply charging a battery; for example, in the well-developed (but very expensive) hydrogen fuel-cell systems used in automobiles like the Honda FCX Clarity, it takes three or four times as much primary energy (fossil fuel, solar, whatever) to generate and store the hydrogen to go a given distance as it would take to go the same distance using that energy to charge a battery-electric vehicle.  Thus I doubt there is any environmental advantage to this system over a battery-only setup.

In particular, I’m not sure what the advantage is here over simply carrying non-rechargeable “primary” batteries plus one of the many AA chargers available.  Googling around, I find that the iPhone 5 has a 5.45 Watt-hour battery, so the internal battery of the PowerTrekk on its own is good for about one full charge (5.6 Wh).  I understand that a puck will nominally give you about 4 Wh, so I’m not sure where the “two charges per puck” figure comes from—perhaps two “average” charges starting at about 50%, or maybe two full charges from a three-pack?  In any case, a single lithium AA battery holds about 3.1 Wh, has a shelf-life measured in decades, and costs about the same per Wh as a puck.

Full disclosure—without pimping a bunch of links to my own website, I’ll just note that I am among those who have “mixed it” with automakers in the last decade over their support of fuel-cell vehicles over battery-electrics.  The only advantage fuel cells have for that application is that their hydrogen tanks can be “quick charged” in minutes at a fueling station, repeatedly, whereas even quick-charging of electric-vehicle batteries is at least a few times slower and over time will damage the batteries.  I appreciate the geeky delights of a pocket fuel cell; I’ve enjoyed driving and riding in a few full-size prototype fuel-cell vehicles and I use a Thames & Kosmos model fuel-cell (plus solar) car to talk at schools about alternative energy.  However, for this application I see no advantage (weight, shelf life, ...) over a AA charger, and the cost of the fuel-cell device is a big disadvantage.

geoduck

looper
Well put. I was going to say much the same thing myself but got sidetracked. It’s not a ‘catalyst’, it’s not ‘magic’, it isn’t really getting it’s energy from water,  and it seems a bit too good to be true.

and you know the old saw about things that seem to be too good to be true.

Mac-teen

Er, hate to rain on YOUR parade looper, but I’m pretty sure that the author of this article realizes that these fuel cells are not run by magic… Even in the articles title, “PowerTrekk charges your iPhone by magic. OK, HYDROGEN & WATER” he clearly states that it is a hydrogen fuel cell powering the device.  You also point out that the puck is not truly a catalyst for the reaction stating that, “that’s something that’s not changed by the chemical reaction it facilitates” but that’s false too. A catalyst is merely a substance used to either kickstart or aid in a reaction and is almost always changed in the reaction. In the case of the PowerTrekk, the puck serves as a catalyst for the reaction in which excess electrons, created from the splitting of H2 gas and O2 gas and combining to form H2O (water), are collected and pumped into the PowerTrekk’s battery, or your phone.  And the point of this system, as opposed to a rechargeable battery, is for the simple fact that as the author put it, trees don’t have outlets. This gives the system the ability to be used in the wilderness which, and seeing how the purpose of the review is to demonstrate the uses of technology in the wilderness, ie. camping, is quite bennificient.  I’m glad you could use this article to lecture us on your fight with the automobile industry and their use of hydrogen fuelcells.

looper

Mac-teen—dude, chill.

1) “Magic”—I understood that the term was used as hyperbole; my point is that the hyperbole is not justified.

2) “Catalyst”—sorry, while the term is often used loosely (“catalyst for war”), in chemistry the definition does include not being used up.  Google “define catalyst in chemistry” and follow the links that lead to chemistry websites; you’ll see phrases like “without itself being consumed,” “does not undergo any chemical change,” etc.  The point is that producing the puck costs energy each time you use one up to charge the phone; by calling it a catalyst and saying the system “us[es] water as a fuel source,” the article at least suggests that most of the energy to charge your phone is somehow being liberated from the water (which is why I compared it to those “run your car on water” ads) instead of being generated in a power plant.

3) “Trees don’t have outlets”—yes, that’s why this system is helpful where an AC phone charger wouldn’t be.  But why is it more helpful than, or (given the cost) even a useful alternative to, a pocketful of energy-dense, non-rechargeable AA batteries together with one of the many adapters on the market that let you charge an iPhone using those?

4) “Lecture us”—do you know what “disclosure” means?  I mentioned my previous involvement with the subject so that readers could evaluate whether what I wrote here is affected by a pre-existing bias.  I guess I didn’t make clear why I talked about “quick charging”—the point is that, while in an automotive application the rapid refueling of a hydrogen fuel cell system is an advantage over even the quickest available recharging of a battery system, this is not relevant for this application, where the fuel-cell device (PowerTrekk) is being compared not with plugging in a rechargeable battery but rather with inserting a couple of non-rechargeable batteries into an adapter.

This reply is almost as long as the original post; I try to edit myself for brevity, but I just end up causing confusion and wasting even more words to clear it up…

looper

p.s.  Ah—I see one place where my phrasing might have caused particular confusion.  I referred a couple of times to a “AA charger,” by which you must have somehow thought I meant an AC wall-plug charger for rechargeable AA batteries despite the fact that I was talking about non-rechargeable batteries in the same sentence.  What I meant is a device that has a holder for AA batteries (rechargeable or non-rechargeable) on one end and, on the other end, a plug to use their energy to recharge your phone’s internal battery.  These things cost about ten times less than the PowerTrekk.

iJack

Well said, Mac-teen.
Looper, consider yourself bitch-slapped.

looper

iJack—I suggest you hit “reload” on your browser before posting a comment.  I posted a reply (and p.s.) two and a half hours before your “well said,” explaining what he or she, and apparently you, misunderstood in my original comment.

2old4fun

looper that was a series of excellent comments that i appreciate.  There is too much “journalism” that tries to excite rather than inform.  Accuracy will always win with me.

Thanks.

ClementC

Well said, looper wink

I’m tired of people going on as if fuel cells create energy out of thin air by capturing rainbows and pixie dust. They produce electricity by chemical reactions. It turns out that conventional batteries, oddly enough, also produce electricity by chemical reactions. The fact that fuel cells can be refueled is an important difference, true, but the fact that fuel cells have to be refueled is also an important difference. Calling the consumable puck for this fuel cell a “catalyst” is as inaccurate as calling the gasoline for an internal combustion engine a “catalyst”. There is a catalyst in fuel cells, but as in a catalytic converter, it’s usually made of platinum and is by definition not consumed.

This product strikes me as a classic example of the disposable razor blade model, in which once you have the durable product (the fuel cell) you can’t use it without having to frequently buy consumable supplies (fuel pucks) from the product manufacturer at whatever price they choose to charge. A device powered by AA batteries can use any brand of battery. A Li-ion device can be discharged and recharged for years between battery replacements. Beware vendor lock-in.

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