Clean energy could change the world, which is why lots of people are excited about fuel cell technology. The Upp fuel cell charger is one of the first consumer fuel cell products, converting hydrogen into electricity without any harmful by-products to charge your phone when you’re far from home.
The Upp is a USB charger into which you plug a cartridge containing hydrogen, forming a Proton Exchange Membrane fuel cell. It works by creating a chemical reaction that produces electricity. The only by-products are heat and water vapour.
Unlike battery packs, Upp won’t degrade over time, so the hydrogen cartridge can be refilled by the manufacturer and you can continue using the charger indefinitely. The 5W, 5V charger charges as fast as the mains and is well-suited for phones, although less so for power-hungry tablets such as the iPad.
Upp claims its hydrogen fuel cells are much better for the environment than current chargers. It’s worth noting that like any gadget, Upp contains plastic and metal and so has a cost to its production and disposal. But fuel cells have for a while been touted as the next big power source, especially for cars, potentially replacing or at least reducing reliance on fossil fuels. That sounds great, which is why it’s a shame that the Upp has several problems.
The charger is available now from Upp’s website for £149 in the UK. It’s not yet available in the US, but the company has said it will cost $200 from the retailer Brookstone, and presumably the same from its own site.
How it works
The Upp charger couldn’t be simpler to use: just take the cap off the end of the charger and connect the hydrogen fuel cell. They attach magnetically so the fuel cell snaps satisfyingly into place.
At the end of the charger is a familiar USB socket. Plug your phone or any USB-charging device into the cable as normal, turn the charger on and away you go.
Simple it may be — portable it is not. The Upp is touted as a power source when you don’t have access to the mains, whether you’re in a campsite in Cornwall or deep in the wilds of the developing world. But you need a few hydrogen cartridges with you if you’re spending any time off the grid, and they ain’t light.
The charger weighs 235g (8.3 ounces) and each spare cartridge 385g (13.6 ounces), for a combined weight of 620g (1.4 pounds). The whole unit is about the size and weight of a medium-sized torch, one of the big ones powered by a batch of C batteries.
As it charges, the fuel cell vents water vapour every few minutes. Unfortunately, that makes a clearly audible “click-click” noise. It’s not loud enough to scare anyone, but if you’ve got your phone charging next to you, the noise gets annoying fast. If you were camping, for example, it might keep you awake at night.
Not only are the cartridges far from light, they ain’t cheap either: you get one with the charger but after that a spare costs £35, and swapping empty for full costs £10 a pop. That converts to $59 and $17 respectively, but expect it to be a little cheaper in the US.
Swapping for a full cartridge limits where you can use the charger. The included app and Upp’s website show you where you can get more hydrogen cartridges on a map, with dozens of locations in the UK and US. Currently they’re all listed as “coming soon”, however, and tend to be clustered in highly populated areas. In the US, many of the locations will be at branches of Brookstone.
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