Gadgets we can only dream of could easily be ours – if we just had better batteries. Andy Goldberg visits the Silicon Valley labs bringing military power cells to the people
March 14, 2007
Imagine a personal computer the size of your mobile phone, capable of doing everything your current laptop does, as well as making calls, taking photos and playing your music and videos. You wouldn’t have to squint at a tiny screen or peck out letters using two fingers on minuscule buttons. Instead, a miniature projector would beam a crystal-clear virtual monitor on to any flat surface or send images via Bluetooth to a screen in your glasses. Another would cast a virtual keyboard on your desktop.
It would be an amazingly useful device – perhaps the most essential gadget in our digital lives, and it’s not that far from reality. Most of the technologies have already been demonstrated. But there is one problem: the battery would be so large you’d have to carry it around in its own backpack.
But hope is at hand. In labs around the world, research teams are racing to build better batteries that are safer, smaller, lighter and longer-lasting than our current power-packs. Some of these scientists are trying to perfect new types of fuel cells that turn methanol and water into hydrogen and then into electricity. You may have heard of the fuel-cell idea – car manufacturers such as Honda and even Morgan are touting next-generation vehicles that convert hydrogen into electricity to power the motor. For mobile electronics engineers the goal is to miniaturise this technology from car-size to phone size. It’s quite a challenge but they’re getting close. Others are building microscopic nano-batteries and experimenting with polymer film to mould batteries into any shape. Then there are those who use chemicals such as zinc or silver to improve batteries’ energy density and charging properties.
All of them share one basic belief: that relentlessly increasing the potency of our microchips without thinking about their energy supply makes about as much sense as building gas-guzzling cars just as oil supplies are running out.
In a drab, low-slung building next to the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, a top nuclear weapons lab on the edge of California’s Silicon Valley, Brad Abkenari proudly shows off his solution. At first glance the UltraCell XX25 doesn’t seem that impressive – a plastic, khaki-coloured fuel cell that runs on refillable cartridges of methanol. Abkenari has one hooked up directly to the computer that he uses to give a visitor a PowerPoint presentation. On his cluttered desk another fuel cell is attached to a laptop, whose battery and power supply have been hacked by Ultracell engineers and are now held together with industrial-strength sticky tape.
The XX25 costs a cool $5,000, is about half the size of a laptop, and can run one for eight hours on each Smarties-tube-sized methanol cartridge. But work has already started on a $90m factory that will halve the size and cost of the fuel cell. By 2011, says Abkenari, who is Ultracell’s marketing manager, the fuel cells will be similar in size and cheaper than today’s dominant technology – lithium-ion batteries – while providing four or five times the power.
Like many of the new battery start-ups, Ultracell is partially funded by the Pentagon. Today’s hi-tech soldier needs oodles of electricity to keep his kit working. The XX25 is already being used by US and British troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, where it can cut the battery payload for a four-day mission from 13kg to 4kg.
But will it be the answer for the consumers of tomorrow? Carmi Levy, a battery expert at the Info-Tech Research Group, doubts it. “We’re used to plugging in for rechargeable power, not to buying new cartridges of methanol,” he says. Then there is also the problem of safety. In the wrong hands a fuel cell and its methanol cartridge turn into a perfect bomb for blowing up a plane.
But if fuel cells aren’t the answer, what is? Given the huge financial stakes, it’s not surprising that there are plenty of candidates. The real surprise is that none of them are even nearly ready for release on to the market. A company that cracks the battery market could dominate the gadget world just as Google dominates the internet. The global rechargeable battery market last year was estimated at some $50bn. More than two billion rechargeable battery cells were sold for use in 850 million mobile phones, 70 million laptops and countless other mobile devices, from MP3 players to digital cameras and nifty power tools.
But researchers have an awful lot of catching up to do if they really want to improve things. Batteries work by converting chemical energy into electrical energy by placing certain materials – usually metals – in an electrolyte solution. The first truly portable rechargeable batteries were nickel cadmium cells that were introduced in the 1980s. They were superseded by nickel metal hydride that gave better power and recharging performance. Lithium-ion batteries were a further improvement and now dominate the market. But since lith-ions were widely introduced in the early 1990s, battery efficiency has only doubled, while gadgets have registered huge advances, demanding more power for more of the time in our always-on society.
So even as electronic manufacturers pack in more features, the lack of added battery oomph means we can’t use much of it. Just try listening to music all day on your fancy new digital media phone. Chances are you won’t have much power left to get any talking done. “It’s frustrating,” says biotech engineer Felicia Emerson of her trendy new LG Chocolate mobile. “I can listen to music, or take photos, but it won’t leave me a lot of talk time.”
But it’s not only convenience that’s at risk from our reliance on lith-ion batteries. There is also a red-hot safety issue. Last year, Sony was forced to recall more than nine million batteries in Dell, Apple and Lenovo laptops, because microscopic impurities were causing them to catch fire. The glitch focused attention on the ugly underbelly of our lith-ion addiction. Experts say that the technology is inherently unstable, and has been stretched too close to its size and energy limits. “We have a huge power problem,” says Rob Enderle, a Silicon Valley analyst focusing on personal technology trends. “Lithium-ion batteries are inefficient and unsafe, but we have decades of inaction to make up for. Batteries are the biggest bottleneck in technology.”
The Sony debacle prompted a rush of research dollars into the field. Already Apple has introduced a newer type of battery called lithium-polymer that offers safety advantages by storing the lithium on thin plastic sheets that make it easier to keep volatile chemicals apart. Li-Poly batteries can also be shaped to fit devices, but have a slightly higher weight-to-energy ratio. Sony, Sanyo and Panasonic recently committed to the technology. Apple is also rumoured to be planning to use two Li-Poly batteries in its music phone – one for making calls and one for music.
Carmi Levy says the technological roadmap will eventually lead to flexible, thin film batteries that use a variety of compounds to create much better energy density. But it will take at least five years for these products to become available, and will require fundamental redesign of our mobiles and laptops. “Every piece of circuitry must be fully re-engineered,” he says. “It is a [huge] feat to switch over to this.”
Former US Air Force officer Ross Dueber has another solution. Dueber’s company, Zinc Matrix, is also backed by the Pentagon and claims to have cracked the battery puzzle by using a silver/zinc combination that has a high energy output and is perfectly suited to the consumer market. Dueber says his battery is much safer than lith-ion, is non-toxic and fully recyclable. The only problem is that it operates on a different voltage and would require some gadget redesign. But Dueber says that manufacturers are currently testing his product and that the manufacturing giant Tyco Electronics is ramping up mass production.
Elsewhere, researcher Tom Krupenkin at the famed Bell Labs is working on a technology dubbed “nanograss” that uses tiny silicon pillars and droplets of water to improve battery efficiency. Sony is also working on a new battery technology called Nexelion that pairs lithium with tin.
Device manufacturers are also taking action, moving away from a fixation with creating faster and more powerful gadgets to making sure they can last longer on a single charge. But battery advocates doubt that they will keep up with the ever-growing demands for mobile power – citing the clash between the immutable laws of thermodynamics and Moore’s Law which describes how processors double in power every 18 months. “We’ll never be able to give you enough energy,” concedes Dueber. “Battery technology will continue to improve but never as fast as micro-electronics.”
How to make your power last longer
- Choose the right laptop for you: smaller screens use less power. Windows Vista uses less power than Windows XP.
- Get the right battery: generally speaking, lithium-ion and lithium-polymer batteries pack more punch than anything else widely available at the moment. They can’t be overcharged either, so you can keep them plugged in whenever you can.
- Listen out for the sounds eminating from your laptop’s hard drive: as it spins, it drains the battery fast. Add RAM memory chips so that the onus is taken off the hard drive, and use your system tools to clean up your drive.
- Adjust your power: set your power settings to the “portable/laptop” screen on Windows machines and “energy saver” mode on Apples.
- Be a program scrooge: make sure you only have the programs you really need running. That means closing down all the services and widgets that run in the background, and disabling your wireless card if you’re not online.
- Set your priorities: if you want to speak all day on your mobile, don’t use it as a radio, camera or music player.
- Control your MP3 player – use the “hold” button to prevent the player turning on by itself.
- Turn off the backlight and equaliser on your iPod, and try not to hop from track to track too much.
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