Meet the Upp: here's why you should be pumped about fuel cell chargers

Compact fuel cell-based phone charger Upp looks set to bring this long-awaited tech to the masses

Fuel cells? I’ve heard about these before

You certainly have. We’ve covered hydrogen fuel cell engines on these pages a few times as a way to power various devices, from phones to MacBooks to cars. They’ve long been regarded as a major future alternative to batteries because they’re long-lasting, portable and clean, using hydrogen as their energy source and outputting nothing but energy and water vapour. But despite all the talk we’ve seen little sign of them in the gadget world… until now.

What’s changed?

Today Intelligent Energy unveiled Upp, a personal fuel cell engine (yep, it is a real engine) that’s affordable, compact and compatible with pretty much any mobile gadget you own. It’ll top up the battery of anything that charges via USB, like smartphones, tablets, e-readers, handheld consoles and some digital cameras.

It's a scaled-down version of the engines Intelligent Energy put inside London Taxis for the 2012 Olympics, and has 25 years of pedigree behind it. 

How does Upp work?

Upp is a simple two-part system: you magnetically attach a fuel cell cartridge onto the main charger body (it connects with a satisfying 'thunk'). At one end is a Micro USB port and a button to turn on the power. You plug in your gadget and hit the button to start charging, then turn it off when you’re done (it’ll also automatically turn off when the item is fully charged, in order to save power). That’s pretty much it.

There’s also a companion app (for Android and iOS) that predicts how much usage you have left on your current cell and optimises charging to keep your internal battery as happy as possible.

The charger weighs 385g and a cartridge weighs 235g, and together they measure 120 x 40 x 48mm. Not small, but hey - the future of tech rarely is.

More after the break...

How is it better than carrying around an extra battery?

Well, assuming the device you’re charging supports battery swapping in the first place, Upp provides far more power than an extra battery. Its makers claim a full capacity Upp charger will fully charge your smartphone at least five times. And there’s nothing to stop you carrying around several cartridges at a time.

But why not just get a high-capacity Li-ion battery? That would make sense in the US or Europe, but in places with unreliable national grids, such as sub-Saharan Afica where Upp is first being launched, Intelligent Energy is setting up its own distribution network. Rather than plugging in, it's more akin to filling up at a petrol station.

This could be a boon for African business, where vast amounts of commerce is done via mobile phone SMS. For some, having charge already equals having a livelihood. 

Are cartridges reusable?

Yes, each cartridge can be reused ‘multiple times’, but you won't be able to refill it yourself. When you're almost out of gas the app will automatically have a new cartridge sent to you via courier or, as it's location-aware, let you know the closest place you can get a refill. 

In future it might even be possible to exchange spent cartridges for filled ones at vending machines (probably not for free, mind you).

The efficacy of all this depends on the quality of the distribution network, of course. But as it builds, the Upp could become an adventure travel essential.

So how much does Upp cost?

The device will set you back around US$200 (£130), but Intelligent Energy is also working with African mobile networks on plans that, in exchange for a monthly fee, will get you a charger and a number of refills.

It's not just a handy gadget, though. Intelligent Energy tells us that Upp is a platform: that the fuel cell technology inside it can be licensed by other companies to use as they please, scaled up and down, stretched and flattened for all kinds of applications. Indeed, the cartridges could already be dramatically reduced in size without compromising their capacity.

Sounds like one to watch to us.