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Fuel Cell Hype Back Again

from the and-it'll-disappear-again-as-well dept

Every few years the press gets excited about the potential for fuel cell-powered laptops. And then the concept goes away. We wrote about in 2003, explaining why it wasn't a big deal, and again in 2005. So here we are in 2008 and, once again, we're hearing stories about new fuel cells for laptops that are going to be demoed (not, of course, actually put into production). The benefits of a fuel cell-powered laptop are that on a single cell, a laptop can last a lot longer (usually the estimate is about 10 hours). That sure beats the 3 to 5 hours most laptops get on traditional lithium-ion batteries today.

But... there's a huge problem with fuel cells that almost never gets discussed in the press: you need to keep buying replacements and then you need to carry those replacement fuel cell cartridges with you. It's like back to the bad old days when your consumer electronics products all had non-rechargeable, disposable batteries. It was a huge pain. That's why everyone switched to rechargeable batteries. When you switch to disposable fuel cells, then you're adding an ongoing expense (much greater than electricity) and forcing users to keep carrying around spares. Yes, for some folks that ability to go for a longer time without plugging in will be worth it -- but for plenty of people it seems like the "cost" is a lot worse than the benefit.


Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1.  
    identicon
    Liam, Jul 24th, 2008 @ 3:36am

    Use Both

    Why not use both, have the cell as a backup for when the lithium battery dies. Think of it as a complementary technology rather then a replacement.

     

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  2.  
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    Da_ALC, Jul 24th, 2008 @ 3:48am

    Actually, fuel-cells are a scam of a term.

    HHO can be generated on the fly from water. With a properly made cathode and anode, they will not oxidise and need replacing, so the only thing you would need to replace is a bit of water, and that should be once a week.

    The electricity companies are desperately trying to turn something that is very simple, into something very complicated, as they are about to start losing allot of revenue due to new energy sources.
    They want you to think that things need renewing, replacing, and paying for on a regular basis.

    Fact is, people have made gearboxes that are so good, you can power your house by taking bike-ride every morning, storing the leccy you have produced in a battery.

     

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  3.  
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    Jake, Jul 24th, 2008 @ 4:14am

    I think you're being a little unfair here. True, one cell can only power a laptop for ten hours, but the ones described in the article you link to are pretty small; a medium-sized laptop could conceivably hold two or three of them in place of the battery. Besides, how hard could it be to refill one in the field?

     

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  4.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jul 24th, 2008 @ 4:14am

    Fuel cell work very well as long as hydrogen is used as the fuel.

    Hydrogen is a class A explosive meaning it is very dangerous to use even for people skilled in its usage.

    Natural gas can be used as a fuel if impurities can be removed by a reformer placed between the fuel cell and the fuel supply or fuel cells can be modified to accept impure gas. Reformer have not been made that will deliver pure gas with out impurities. Fuel Cells have not been made that will accept impure gas. Development is in process of both making fuel cells that will accept impure gas and reformers that will work.

    The idiots that believe that there will be hydrogen fuel stations like current gas stations have NO idea of the magnitude of what a hydrogen explosion is like or how likely one is with hundreds of fuel installations period much less millions per day by unskilled people. Mankind has been to the moon and mankind has developed a few hydrogen power cars but neither in the first part of the 21st century are feasible for the masses.

     

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  5.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jul 24th, 2008 @ 4:16am

    Re:

    What a retard

     

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  6.  
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    Enrico Suarve, Jul 24th, 2008 @ 4:17am

    Re:

    I'd love to be able to believe you but frankly if generating your own electricity were that easy I can't imagine people wouldn't be doing it already.

    Hell never mind individuals, the fitness companies would be making a fortune "Not only does our bike get you fit but it saves you hundreds on your energy bills - pays for itself in xx months"

    Please show me I'm wrong and give some sort of reference? On this occasion i'd truly love to be wrong

     

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  7.  
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    Keill Randor, Jul 24th, 2008 @ 4:21am

    HHO from Water...

    Yes, HHO can be made from water through electrolysis, though, unfortunately, I was always under the impression that a) it always needs more energy putting in (electricity), than you get out of it, (HHO), and b) it's rather slow...

    I thought that the whole point of (hydrogen) fuel cells, was to make it so that this reaction could be done requiring a lot less/no energy at the time - (i.e. apart from the energy required to make the fuel cell in the first place) - and to bypass the carrier (H&HHO)) and produce electricity directly instead, again with just water as the byproduct - (hopefully being more efficient).

     

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  8.  
    identicon
    Luci, Jul 24th, 2008 @ 4:31am

    Re:

    http://www.cleantechblog.com/2007/04/california-hydrogen-highway-spans-800.html

    Seems California is already making it 'for the masses.'

     

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  9.  
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    Paul Faulstich, Jul 24th, 2008 @ 5:14am

    The fuel cell cartridges will be rechargable. Different companies may take different approaches - some will separate the fuel cell from the fuel storage, so you just need to replace the storage cartridge. Some will package the cell and fuel together, so you'll replace both. Either way, the most likely scenario is that you'll stop by the local quickie-mart, buy a few cartridges, return your used cartridges for a refund, and be on your way. It is possible that some places will be able to recharge them, but most will send them to a centralized recharging location. Just like propane tanks, but on the scale of a cigarette lighter. More...

     

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  10.  
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    Paul Faulstich, Jul 24th, 2008 @ 5:26am

    Re: (Anonymous Coward)

    Coward - you're wrong. The people who work with hydrogen every day and understand its properties are its biggest supporters. Learn the facts.

     

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  11.  
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    Paul Faulstich, Jul 24th, 2008 @ 5:31am

    Re: Re: (Anonymous Coward)

    plus - fuel cells for portable electronics use methanol. Hydrogen is safe, but it does need to be handled properly, and doing so in the space constraints of portable electronics would counteract its benefits. Methanol is not as efficient, but it is a better fit for small devices.

     

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  12.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jul 24th, 2008 @ 5:40am

    So much for innovation. Mike wants to abolish copyright for innovation's sake, but doesn't like innovation. I thought you liked change for change's sake that is very popular right now.

     

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  13.  
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    Paul Faulstich, Jul 24th, 2008 @ 5:40am

    Re: HHO from Water...

    You're right about electrolysis. Objection (a) is irrelevant - if you find anything that produces more power than you put in, then you have a perpetual motion device. ALWAYS think about hydrogen as a battery. No one complains that it takes more energy to charge a battery than you get out! Objection (b) is kind of funny, given how long it takes to extract and refine oil.

    You're wrong about the whole point of fuel cells. The whole point is to provide an energy storage mechanism that has far more power than batteries of the same size or weight. For the methanol fuel cells Mike is talking about, the comparison is 24 hour charge for the fuel cell vs. a 2-5 hour charge for the battery - all in a unit of the same size and less weight.

     

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  14.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jul 24th, 2008 @ 6:04am

    One of the previous rounds of major hype involved using alcohol as the fuel source. Recharging involved injecting more over-the-counter alcohol using a special syringe. I think that got so much hype just because American reporters can never resist grade school mentality humor whenever alcohol is involved.

     

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  15.  
    identicon
    KENCHILL1, Jul 24th, 2008 @ 6:15am

    Methanol fuel cells in production

     

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  16.  
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    Paul Faulstich, Jul 24th, 2008 @ 6:34am

    Re: Methanol fuel cells in production

    Thanks for posting this KENCHILL1! This site refers to disposable methanol cartridges. So clearly, some companies are looking to containers that won't be reusable. In which case I agree with Mike's complaint. The last thing we need is our landscape littered with little methanol cartridges.

     

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  17.  
    identicon
    Overcast, Jul 24th, 2008 @ 6:37am

    Coward - you're wrong. The people who work with hydrogen every day and understand its properties are its biggest supporters. Learn the facts.

    That's going on one BIG assumption that people who can buy it will WANT to handle it properly. Some may well desire to find other 'uses' for it, like anything else - it'll be abused, of course.

    And accidents do happen - there is a specific reason Hydrogen isn't used in Blimps anymore - the Hindenburg was quite an example of what can go wrong.

    Sure, the people who work with it and such are cautious and all, just like the guy who drives a Gasoline Tanker truck - but there are those who don't seek to use various substances for good reasons.

     

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  18.  
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    Battery Man, Jul 24th, 2008 @ 6:38am

    Okay... lets see..

    A 10 hour battery for a specific laptop... Lets just guess how much they will charge. Maybe hmmm $50.00

    If I just purchase two regular rechargables for lets say $90 I will have about 7 hours of battery life. That is if I buy the good rechargeable not the bottom line models. Then I won't need to keep buying Fuel cell batteries and have to find a place to recycle them.

    No Thanks, I'll just buy two good rechargeable laptop batteries and run with them.

     

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  19.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jul 24th, 2008 @ 6:40am

    Re: Use Both

    Why not have a backup lithium?
    I mean, why would you replace your chosen technology with a secondary technology...

    And if you replace your "dead" lithium with a cell.... wouldn't you replace your very soon to be dead cell with a lithium anyways?

     

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  20.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jul 24th, 2008 @ 6:42am

    Re:

    You should publish this in a step by step howto and make your first million $$$

    douche

     

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  21.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jul 24th, 2008 @ 6:44am

    Re:

    Da_ALC:

    In response to your bike-ride electricity generator:

    At a gym, a well-trained human can sustain output equal to a horsepower with an intense workout. Let's be generous and say that they can do this for a full hour, producing 745 watt-hours of energy.

    Now, assume that on their bike ride to work, they produce this same output, it is an hour commute, and ALL energy they make is stored in this magic battery (forget about the energy it takes to actually move the bike). And, say they do it twice a day: that's a whopping 1.5 kW-h of energy per day. Please let me know what house you live in that only uses 1.5 kWh of energy per day.

    It doesn't matter what kind of gearbox you put on a bike, a simple conservation of energy will tell you it's ridiculous.

     

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  22.  
    identicon
    BaasGaas, Jul 24th, 2008 @ 6:45am

    Bad old days was not that bad

    My newest digital point-and-shoot camera runs off 2 AAs. That was my first requirement. I do not want to be somewhere and my rechargeable battery dies on me. Now I can be at the top of the Eiffel tower and if I run out of batteries, I walk to the kiosk and buy 2 more batteries. I agree with Liam (First post). Why not both? I get so damn annoyed when my laptop runs out of power and there is nothing I can do. It would be really nice to be able to walk to a store and purchase a FULLY CHARGED battery. I can say the same for any other device that requires rechargeable batteries. Actually, while I am on this rant - This would be the best solution for my Nokia 770 and 800. I use the 770 as a portable movie player for my little boy and I wish it would either hold the charge a little longer, or be able to buy FULLY CHARGED batteries.

    New is not always better, it sometimes help to go dig around in the past and see what we have forgotten.

     

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  23.  
    identicon
    streadwick, Jul 24th, 2008 @ 6:53am

    Pedal power

    Where can I get one of these power generating exercise bikes? I've read about homemade ones but never heard of any that are being mass produced. If they're as good as Da_ALC makes them sound, I'll buy one tomorrow and start selling my excess juice to Con Ed. With that kind of incentive maybe my wife would even start pedaling every day.

     

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  24.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jul 24th, 2008 @ 7:13am

    Re:

    Gasoline is explosive too. Good thing there's no way we'd make it widely available to everybody in some sort of safety-minded simple distribution system, that could be dangerous!

     

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  25.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jul 24th, 2008 @ 7:24am

    Re: Re:

    Your over-simplification of stuff that burns / stuff that doesn't burn and your analogy makes me cringe.

     

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  26.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jul 24th, 2008 @ 7:29am

    Re: Re: (Anonymous Coward)

    Sorry but I have had the displeasure of cleaning up after a hydrogen explosion.

     

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  27.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jul 24th, 2008 @ 7:31am

    Re: Re:

    Was that moma you just saw jump over the moon?

     

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  28.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jul 24th, 2008 @ 8:01am

    Re: Pedal power

    Twinkies usually work better when women are involved...

     

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  29.  
    identicon
    Ed, Jul 24th, 2008 @ 8:15am

    Re: by Anonymous Coward

    Idiot....

    Gasoline is far, far, far more dangerous than hydrogen.

     

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  30.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jul 24th, 2008 @ 8:15am

    RE: Micro fuel cell killer

    A couple of articles on the topic of what happened to micro fuel cells:

    The best fuel cell company you've never seen
    http://www.cleantechblog.com/2008/04/best-fuel-cell-company-youve-never-seen.html

    Micro Fuel Cell Killer
    http://www.cleantechblog.com/2007/06/micro-fuel-cell-killer-whats-next.html

     

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  31.  
    identicon
    Nasch, Jul 24th, 2008 @ 8:15am

    Re: Re: HHO from Water...

    What Keill is objecting to (correctly) is the idea of a water fuel cell, which it sounds like Da_ALC is suggesting. That may not have been what he meant, but if it is you can see that both objections a and b are quite relevant.

     

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  32.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jul 24th, 2008 @ 8:25am

    Re: Re:

    Ed Begley, he's an actor who powers his entire home off riding a bike. Its not as simple as the guy above makes it seem though. For one, it cost a fortune to install. Secondly, no-one has made any true studies into how effective it truly is.. since the power source.. the human doing the peddling, still needs to consume raw materials. And it simply wouldn't work in some climates. He's in northern california, where temperature flux is minimal off a fairly sedate norm. So heating and cooling requirements for his bike powered home isn't what they'd be in say.. Canadian winter, or Louisiana summer.

     

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  33.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jul 24th, 2008 @ 8:29am

    Re: Re: by Anonymous Coward

    What???

    You've got that backwards. Hydrogen is FAR more explosive than Gasoline. Beyond the fact that Hydrogen burns faster making explosions more violent than any standard gasoline, Hydrogen also ignites much easier.

     

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  34.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jul 24th, 2008 @ 8:43am

    Re: Re: (Anonymous Coward)

    Hindenburg disaster
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hindenburg_disaster

    And the Hindenburg burned. It was not a confined explosion like a fuel tank would be.

     

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  35.  
    identicon
    T. Boone Pickens, Jul 24th, 2008 @ 8:57am

    Welcome to the Dog & Pony Show

    Remember the hype over CNG cars

    The Oil Companies said it would support it, and put in 4,000 to 5,000 CNG fueling stations in the country. *Just like how they supported Hydrogen sales at current gas stations for Fuel Cells*

    As far as I'm concerned, there is $150 Trillion worth of oil in the earth's crust, and that means $150 Trillion (Today's dollars) of business that is still to be conducted. Why Change? But they have to make environmentalists happy.


    This is just the same bullshit we saw in the 1990s to show Congress something is being done... Trust us, we're oilmen!

     

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  36.  
    identicon
    limaxray, Jul 24th, 2008 @ 9:05am

    Re: Re: HHO from Water...

    You are right, every energy vector is going to give you back less energy than you put in. That's not the point, the point is electrolysis is something like 50% efficient if you're lucky. That means for every 100 joules you dump in, you only get 50 joules back. Basically you'll need twice as much energy to do a task; that's pretty wasteful if you ask me.

    Charging a lithium ion battery OTOH can be over of 99% efficient depending on the charging method. What would you rather; loosing 50 joules of energy, or less than 1?

    But this is about methanol fuel cells which will have a greater net efficiency than either since methanol can be made directly from energy sources such as wood pulp. H2O electrolysis and charging batteries require electricity production and transmission, both of which involve a good number of losses.

    And no, fuel cells aren't always about energy-to-size ratios. They are about quick (instantaneous) recharge times and relatively clean operation. Hydrogen gas for example takes up a large amount of volume for a relatively little amount of energy simply because it's a gas. In this case though, methanol, being a liquid, is very energy dense per volume making it a good choice here.

     

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  37.  
    identicon
    JR, Jul 24th, 2008 @ 9:07am

    Huh?

    great technology and very safe - biggest problem is, try getting a compressed cylinder of hydrogen on an airplane...

     

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  38.  
    identicon
    ehrichweiss, Jul 24th, 2008 @ 9:18am

    Re: Re: Re: (Anonymous Coward)

    Yeah, but didn't the Mythbusters(**) show good evidence that the Hindenburg was basically one big piece of thermite just waiting for a spark to ignite it? The hydrogen was a minor factor, IIRC.

    ** Mythbusters are usually little more than retards with measuring sticks who like to blow things up but they do get some things right from time to time.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  39.  
    identicon
    limaxray, Jul 24th, 2008 @ 9:26am

    Re: Re:

    It seems to me some people take Hollywood a little too seriously. Only gasoline vapor is explosive, liquid gasoline under normal conditions is not. Unlike in the movies, setting fire to a container of gasoline doesn't make it explode; it'll burn really well, but it sure won't explode. Hydrogen under any circumstances is very explosive; set fire to a container of hydrogen and see what happens. Also, hydrogen is much more energy dense than gasoline vapor, thus bigger, hotter explosions for the same amount of substance.

    In order to make gasoline react anywhere as readily as hydrogen you'd need a good amount of heat, pressure, and/or an oxidizer other than just air. Internal combustion engines depend on plenty of heat and pressure to make the gasoline explode. Gasoline derived explosives require an oxidizer like ammonium nitrate to make gasoline explode. Hydrogen just needs an ignition source.

     

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  40.  
    icon
    Mike (profile), Jul 24th, 2008 @ 10:22am

    Re:

    So much for innovation. Mike wants to abolish copyright for innovation's sake, but doesn't like innovation. I thought you liked change for change's sake that is very popular right now.

    Um, what? Who said I support change for change's sake? I support market driven change, and in this case, it seems like a product ripe for market failure.

    What's so contradictory about that?

     

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  41.  
    identicon
    Jake, Jul 24th, 2008 @ 7:48pm

    Re:

    I can actually picture refill kits becoming available, much like the ones for inkjet printer cartridges. It's not like methyl alcohol is particularly expensive, or any more dangerous than barbecue lighting fluid.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  42.  
    identicon
    ike, Jul 24th, 2008 @ 8:44pm

    but for plenty of people it seems like the "cost" is a lot worse than the benefit.

    True! If people want 10 hour battery life and don't mind carrying extra batteries around, they can already do it with Lithium batteries.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  43.  
    identicon
    Azrael, Jul 25th, 2008 @ 12:47am

    Re: Re:

    Over 70% of the world's houses do it. Here in Europe more than 80% use less than 3kwh per day, more than 40% (including me) less than 2kwh and we don't lack anything. My parents use less than 1,5kwh but they have invested heavily in new generation (A energy rating) equipment.

     

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  44.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jul 25th, 2008 @ 4:43am

    Re: Re: Re: Re: (Anonymous Coward)

    Here is the results of a confined hydrogen explosion:

    http://www.cnn.com/US/9904/08/power.plant.blast.01/index.html

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  45.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jul 25th, 2008 @ 7:58am

    Re: Re: Re:

    That's great. But if you run A/C or heating and live in the U.S., that figure is more like 20 kWh/d.

    Besides, my estimate was extremely generous. Obviously most people cannot output a horsepower for an hour. And, most of your energy is put into moving the bike itself. So, a more realistic figure would be a few hundred watt-hours.

    Sure, if you live in a house with candlelight and no HVAC system, why not. In fact, why not just get the whole family together and peddle on a bike array for 15 minutes to charge the batteries for the day.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]


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