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Michael McDonald

Michael McDonald

Michael is an assistant professor of finance and a frequent consultant to companies regarding capital structure decisions and investments. He holds a PhD in finance…

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Is Apple Banking On Fuel Cell Technology?

Apple is notoriously known for venturing into new technologies, shrouded in secrecy. New reports say that the California-based company could be making moves into using fuel cells in some of its future products.

The company has filed a patent which covers the use of a specialized fuel cell system to power a Macbook for weeks at a time. The idea would be a revolutionary one in computing as all other modern electronic devices operate on some combination of rechargeable batteries and AC power. The fuel cell system would dramatically increase the portability and potential for Apple’s Macbook, but it would also radically alter how consumers interact with their devices. Related: Alberta’s Oil Companies Warn Government On Taxes

Fuel cells are not rechargeable by consumers so Apple customers would have to buy fuel cells on a regular basis to power their devices. That in turn would create an on-going revenue stream for Apple, but the fuel cells would have to be very inexpensive for consumers to gain any traction at all. If Apple can use its volume pricing to reduce the cost of fuel cells to a dollar or two per cell, that would completely change the ecosystem for fuel cells.

Fuel cells thus far have largely been relegated to specialty applications like forklifts, but nothing creates wide-spread mass interest like falling prices. Apple’s clout is so large that it could single handedly change the fuel cell industry in the same way that Tesla’s Gigafactory promises to alter the EV and home battery industries. Indeed, if Apple were to find a way to lower fuel cell costs enough that the tech became useful in personal electronics, that might change the way the world uses many devices from TVs to even more mundane products like vacuums and lawn mowers. Related: The Biggest Red Herring In U.S. Shale

This is not the first device Apple has looked at using fuel cells with. The company has reportedly had an experimental iphone with a fuel cell battery built which would allow users to avoid the daily hassle of plugging in their phones. Fuel cells are attractive as power sources because they weigh relatively little and are long lasting. Indeed, Apple might even be able to cut weight from its devices by switching to using fuel cells.

Apple’s current patents describe a system in which a fuel cell would operate alongside a normal battery, so consumers in theory might be able to opt to use either power system for their device. The trick is that the consumer would have to change fuel cell cartridges periodically, and it’s not clear exactly how the logistics for that would work. Related: Two Big Oil And Gas Finds In Unexpected Places

Apple’s other service products are primarily electronic in nature so logistical issues like delivery are not a concern. In contrast, moving millions of fuel cell cartridges from a factory to customers’ homes or to existing Apple stores (and then setting up an efficient system to enable customers to change out their cartridges at a store), would be a Herculean undertaking. It could be done – after all, propane tanks operate on a similar system, but it would be a marked turn of events for Apple and an industry primarily built around business users. That does not mean Apple couldn’t do it – the firm does have fuel cell experience, but it would be a major business shift.

Of course, there is no guarantee that Apple’s patent will even end up in use. Many of Apple’s patented ideas simply collect dust on a shelf. Still for a company looking for a revolutionary advantage to bring in customers for its next generation of phones and computers, the fuel cell could be just the ticket. For now though, investors, fuel cell industry enthusiasts, and Apple fans will all have to wait and see what happens.

By Michael McDonald of Oilprice.com

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