The water-powered mobile phones of the 2000s

By the 2010s, we were supposed to be able to power our phones with water

Since the beginning of the history of mobile phones, batteries have come a long way, yet, in an era where 84% of Canadians report owning a smartphone, the struggle for long-lasting battery life seems to have become a universal one. Part of its short history is a foray into hydrogen fuel cell batteries as an energy source, mostly during the late 2000’s and the early 2010’s – which produced some interesting results that give us an insight into the potential that people saw in mobile phones at the time. I wanted to chronicle just a few example that I found online.

hydrogen fuel cells: What are they?

As a disclaimer, I have no formal education in chemistry or engineering or anything of the sort – I’m just a design student. So, while I do want to give context on what hydrogen fuel cells exactly are, I’m going to use an external source as I don’t think I can reliably explain what it is:

“Hydrogen fuel cells produce electricity by combining hydrogen and oxygen atoms. The hydrogen reacts with oxygen across an electrochemical cell— similar to a battery—to produce electricity, water, and small amounts of heat.” – U.S. Energy Information Administration

Adapted from the National Energy Education Project (public domain)

1. Unreleased Samsung Mobile Phone (2007)

Look at how happy this lady looks with her phone next to a Samsung fish tank. The idea behind this phone, which was supposed to be released by 2010, was that the phone would come with hydrogen-powered water cartridges that would have to be changed about every five days, with each charge powering a phone for 10 hours at a time.

That frequency was assuming that users would be using their phones for about four hours a day on average, which, according to State of Mobile 2022, is still a feasible number today (the average Canadian spent 4.4 hours a day on their phones in 2021). According to Samsung’s CEO, this cartridge format would have later been developed so that cartridges don’t need to be changed, but only filled with water.

Overall though, it would be an understatement to say that mobile phone usage patterns have changed drastically since 2007. Batteries have been forced to evolve as the amount of data sent & received over the internet has increased, meaning that more energy is drained from devices. Realistically, how often would a user of this phone have had to exchange the hydrogen cartridges on this phone? Presumably – pretty frequently, which feels like it goes against the sustainability-conscious users of today, deterring them from buying this phone.

2. Unreleased Motorola MOTOSLVR phone (2008)

This one I’m a little confused about, but from what press releases at the time have written, it seems that Motorola had partnered up with a Vancouver-based company (that has since gone out of business, as their website domain is currently on sale) to experiment with hydrogen-powered batteries, which they prototyped on their flagship (at the time) MOTOSLVR phones, specifically the L7 model.

What catches my attention, beyond the fact that the company that was trying to make these hydrogen-based batteries is now gone, is the potential that the general public saw in this phone. It goes hand-in-hand with what I was imagining when I first heard of water-powered cell phones:

“With a hydrogen fuel cell, you never have to go to the store to get fuel feedstock. You get it out of the faucet. Basically, you can think of it as a water-powered phone.” –

“Imagine, all you’ll need to do is fill up your cellphone with water – and voila, it’ll start working again.” –Firstpost

Overall: Can you imagine your life with water-powered phones?

In 2024, most of North America has now lived through or witnessed extreme droughts, where cities have had to put restrictions on water usage. Through these events, it’s hopefully been ingrained in many people’s minds that water is a more scarce resource than we think – so although this is just speculation, it’s natural for us as a society to be no longer playing with the idea of water for just phone batteries.

But to me, what the phones I’ve shown today represent is the way people used to see much bigger potential in the capabilities of water, and also mobile phones, beyond what we knew at the time. At the end of the day, the idea of being able to get a full charge on my phone just by filling it with water IS still appealing, making me want to keep an eye out for any new developments in the future between water and smartphones, given that the innovations will be driven by a sense of responsibility and respect to the planet, which the above two phones seemed to lack.