1 Million Hydrogen Phone Chargers Headed To Africa To Meet Growing Smartphone Demand

By Ben Wolford on November 15, 2013 1:36 PM EST

UPP Phone charger
A British company is launching its hydrogen-powered phone charger in South Africa. (Photo: UPP)

Hydrogen phone chargers are the latest proposed solution to the growing demand for reliable electricity in a place where cell phones vastly outnumber power outlets — Africa.

Intelligent Energy, a global company with offices in the U.S., U.K., India, and Japan, announced recently it was planning to launch its hydrogen-powered portable charger in South Africa this month. The company told Reuters it planned to flood Nigeria and South Africa with 1 million of the chargers, called Upp, by mid-December.

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"Batteries need help: their capabilities haven't kept pace with innovation in smart connected portable devices," Amar Samra, Intelligent Energy's managing director of consumer electronics, said in a statement.

Their solution is a pocket-sized USB charger similar in shape to some of the more affordable portable batteries out there. Except this isn't a battery. It uses fuel cell technology that works via chemical reactions between hydrogen from a fuel cartridge and oxygen from the air. The only emission is water. General Electric developed the first practical use of fuel cell power in 1963 to fuel the Gemini spacecraft.

The only problem, it seems, may be the price. According to Reuters, the retail cost will be "under $200." That, according to economist Steve Hanke, is two-thirds of the average per capita income of Sub-Saharan Africa (when you don't include South Africa). And it's pretty steep by Western standards, too. Some of the top-of-the-line battery-powered portable chargers fetch $100. Samra told Reuters they may work out some kind of payment plan of $10 per month, or offer the device free with a phone contract.

Samra says it would cost less than $5 to refill Upp's reusable hydrogen cartridge, and each cartridge can refill a typical smartphone five times. But the problem is that refeuling it is a huge hassle. One of the reasons hydrogen-fuel-cell technology hasn't swept the U.S. car market — even though it's super efficient and clean — is that the infrastructure for refeuling hydrogen simply does not yet exist. 

The rest of the world will be able to buy the Upp next year, but Intelligent Energy chose Nigeria and South Africa for its launch. It makes sense. While other information technology advances, like Internet and office networking, have yet to take off, cell phone use on the continent is rapidly expanding. Nearly half of all African residents has a mobile phone, according to AFKInsider.com. And in the next six years, the tech company Ericsson predicts smartphone use in Africa to increase 10 times, Reuters reported.

"We believe Upp is a real game changer for Africa," Samra said.

Upp includes a few other features that make it a unique device. The "Intelligent Auto Shutoff," for example, stops charging when your device is fully charged, which spares both hydrogen fuel and the health of the device's battery. Upp also comes with a smartphone app that includes "predictive usage statistics" so users can better manage their hydrogen fuel levels.

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