Addicted to Power: Using Technology to Build Better Batteries

Ben Bajarin is the Director of Consumer Technology Analysis and Research at Creative Strategies, Inc, a technology industry analysis and market intelligence firm located in Silicon Valley.

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When walking through an airport, have you ever tried to find an outlet for your computer or to charge your phone only to realize that every last outlet is being used? I have this experience often since I travel for business quite a bit. The same is true of my house. There never seems to be enough plugs to charge all my gadgets. Then again, I have too many gadgets.

Whenever I have this experience, I am reminded of the sad state of battery technology for our mobile devices. The constant need to charge our gadgets is about as irritating to me as having to put gas in my car. Charging, like having to get gas, is an irritating task. It makes me feel like somehow my freedom is restricted—and in a way, it is.

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On Twitter this week, Bill Gates put out a call for the creation of new and better renewable energy sources. He also shared a stat I thought was interesting: All the batteries on Earth store just 10 minutes worth of world electricity needs.

Unfortunately, battery technology is a limited science. We don’t have the luxury of having our battery technology follow the pace of innovation or technological advancements like we do with other technologies. This is going to be a limiting factor for the foreseeable future, too.

Technology innovation is not bad, of course. It’s good and encouraging. But having said that, our issues with short battery life are partially our fault. The market’s desire for thinner PCs, smartphones, and tablets with brighter screens and faster processors all require making tradeoffs that impact battery life. Innovation isn’t bad, as I said, but the reality is that our desire for innovative electronics is hampered by the limited science of our current battery technology.

So what can be done about it? Is there hope, or are we doomed to need to recharge all our gadgets on a daily basis? There are several things happening that I want to highlight, along with emphasizing that more still needs to be done.

The first is advancements in microprocessors. The brains that power our electronics have come a long way. Every company making microprocessors for PCs, tablets, smartphones and any other mobile technology we dream up is working on creating more power efficient processors. The goal is to create processors that are still powerful, but don’t require more power themselves, which drains battery life. This is important because as we demand more processing power in our devices to do things like run our apps, play media-rich games and browse multimedia-filled web pages, we need faster CPUs.

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If you follow the technology industry, you’re familiar with a term called “Moore’s Law.” One of Intel’s founders, Gordon E. Moore stated that the number of transistors which could be placed on a single chip would double every 18 months. Note that this does not mean processing performance necessarily doubles every 18 months—only the number of transistors.

There is a key observation, however, for Moore’s Law and mobile devices. Moore’s Law not only makes it possible to double transistors every 18 months, but it also paves the way for chips to become smaller and, in turn, require less power. This is why companies like Intel and AMD are racing to create new processor architectures on an annual cadence. With each new generation, we can have roughly the same computing power, but with smaller processors which require less power. Key advancements by all players in the silicon space are happening in a way that, over time, will see significant computing power that requires less battery power to achieve.

The second thing that is happening is experimentation around battery technology itself. As I stated previously, lithium-ion battery technology is a limited science. People have been trying to achieve breakthroughs with this technology for some time with little success. However, Northwestern University recently released a report and white paper stating that researchers there had created created an electrode for lithium-ion batteries that allows the batteries to hold a charge up to 10 times greater than current technology and can charge 10 times faster than current batteries.

As with all early research, it takes time and money to see if these new technologies could be sustained and produced commercially for the mass market. This new research out of Northwestern is encouraging, and I’m hearing of work in other technology labs that are also trying to create breakthroughs with lithium-ion batteries.

Unfortunately, making technological advancements in microprocessors, lithium-ion batteries, and perhaps some new energy source simply takes time. The important thing is that key work is being done to address our battery life issues with our devices. So for the foreseeable future we will still have to fight for outlets at the airport and charge our smartphones at least once each day. But that’s the reality of today; hopefully not the reality of tomorrow.

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Ben Bajarin is the Director of Consumer Technology Analysis and Research at Creative Strategies, Inc, a technology industry analysis and market intelligence firm located in Silicon Valley.