Hydrogen fuel cells could produce a revolution in portable electronic goods, according to US engineers.

Laptops and MP3 players will be dramatically more portable say researchers at Purdue University in Indiana, who unveiled a new method of using fuel cells, powered by hydrogen instead of methanol, to automatically recharge batteries.

Fuel cells will let portable devices run longer before needing to recharge. Although manufacturers have been developing direct methanol fuel cell (DMFC) technology, the approach has a few drawbacks, including low power density and the need for a catalyst to ignite the reaction between the methanol, air, and water to produce electrical power, which then gives off carbon dioxide as a by-product.

Hydrogen fuel cells can provide more energy than their methanol counterparts, but a key problem has always been hydrogen storage. It is not possible to use high-pressure hydrogen gas containers or liquid hydrogen in portable electronic devices.

Now, researchers Evgeny Shafirovich, Victor Diakov, and Arvind Varma have found a solution to the problem of storing and generating hydrogen by using compund sodium borohydride - a gel created by combining water with polyacrylamide and tiny aluminum particles.

"So far we have shown in experiments that we can convert 6.7 percent of the mixture to hydrogen," said Varma, "which means that for every 100 grams of mixture we can produce nearly 7 grams of hydrogen, and that yield is already better than alternative methods on the market."

Shafirovich said the research team expects the conversion yield to increase to around 8 to 10 percent with further experimentation. Another benefit of the new method is that its by-products are benign and recyclable.

The engineers envision consumers installing the fuel cells as small credit-card-size cartridges. The fuel cell would contain pellets of hydrogen-storing mixture, as well as an ignition system and a microprocessor. When a battery's energy level deteriorated, the microprocessor would initiate the combustion of a pellet, generating hydrogen to power the fuel cell. That would provide energy to recharge the battery. Once all the pellets on a cartridge had been consumed, a new cartridge would need to be inserted.

Although the group has filed a provisional patent application, Shafirovich said they needed $600,000 to complete basic research over the next two years.