Got Juice? Not for Long, You Don't.

In the escalating arms race between battery power and consumption, The Cells are losing to The Gadgets—Big time. Question is, can the chemists catch up to the engineers?

by Dwight Eschliman

Dwight Eschliman

Search result: 11 for batteries suck

From: Rodolfo Gallego
Newsgroups: rec.photo.digital
Subject: The Batteries Saga!!!

Hi group,

I just would like to say that rechargeable batteries suck!!
For God's sake, the man was on the moon 35 years ago, we can light a lamp for a year with the energy of a couple atoms, we have many satellites orbiting Earth, we sent probes to Mars, and they say that they can't make higher-capacity batteries????????? Crap!!!!!!!!!!!!! Don't lie to me!!

I WANT NUCLEAR AA-SIZE BATTERIES!!

Regards,

RG

RODOLFO IS NOT ALONE.

Do a search on Google Groups for certain key words, and you'll find legions of Rodolfos. Though not everyone expresses himself quite so rabidly, all share a frustration growing toward mania. Why--the common refrain goes--why is it that more and more we find ourselves pushing the on button and watching the sad spectacle of nothing going on?

The gadgeteers pack our electronic tools and toys with ever more innovative features, but what they're producing--from cellphones to laptops to camcorders--are leading-edge products lacking the power to make them practical: DVD-equipped notebooks that quit before you've finished Old School, camcorders that can't shoot a full hour of footage without a battery change, and multifunction cellphones that die if you use their multi functions.

To wit: the Nokia 7700, which was announced a year ago as the company's marquee product. It's a lovely idea, not so much a phone but a media device, packed with a head-spinning assortment of functions--a 65,546-color touch screen with
640x320-pixel resolution, a Web browser, audio and video playback, FM radio, built-in camera, voice recording, Bluetooth connectivity, personal-information-management software, word processing, spreadsheet and presentation viewers. It was built to provide three to four hours of talk time--not even enough to get through a business day. And that was just for the phone, without employing any of the cool features accounting for its $1,000 price tag. In June of this year, Nokia shelved indefinitely its plans to launch the 7700. Wonder why.

In fairness to Nokia, its engineers are simply doing their job: nourishing our lust for new technology. "We're at a point where everybody wants more," says Alex Slawsby, a senior analyst for the technology consulting firm IDC. "Everybody wants more in the way of functionality, everybody wants more in the way of capabilities. They wish their iPod had a color screen. Vendors are trying to pack in more processing power; better, brighter, deeper displays; better audio capability; 3-D accelerators for graphics; more storage. And the reality is, battery life is extremely limited."

This widening gulf between computing power and battery capacity traces back to Moore's Law, the guiding-light proclamation made by Intel founder Gordon Moore in 1965, in which he predicted that microchips would double their power every two years. He was right, and in fact it's happening every 18 months now. CPU speed, RAM and disk capacity have grown exponentially as well. But there is no battery corollary to Moore's Law. Since 1990 alone, disk capacity has increased 4,000 times, while the energy density of rechargeable cells--a key ratio of power to volume--has increased just threefold.

The upshot? We're entering a period when battery capacity, not computing power, is steering product innovation. Already manufacturers are in the position of needing to first specify a power source and then engineer a device's feature set around it. It's a stifling approach that is affecting what will and will not make it to the shelves of Best Buy. "The next generation of capability is being held back," says consumer-electronics analyst Richard Doherty of the Envisioneering Group. "For example, Samsung just announced a satellite-tuner chip for handhelds, so you could have a pocket XM radio. But one hour of battery time? I don't think so."

The more our machines whir and hum and get hot, the more energy they drain. Disk drives have motors that hit batteries hard when spinning up from a resting position. Camera flashes are power hogs as well. And the biggest culprit these days is wireless technology--whether Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, or
cellular service--because the battery must power a radio. Dell's Axim X30 PDA, for instance, will run a good 8.5 hours with the Wi-Fi turned off. Using the network frequently, though, cuts operating time down to two hours.
"We have an impending crisis here," says Bill Mitchell, Microsoft's corporate vice president in charge of mobile platforms. "It certainly does seem like something akin to the kind of crisis we experienced during the '70s, when we had all these fuel shortages and lines at the pump. We have a pretty good idea what the next generation of Windows is going to require CPU-wise. Intel has a pretty good idea of how many transistors with how many electrons running through them that's going to need, and we can do the math and say, Hmm, there's going to be a problem here.' And we're not sure how it's going to be solved."

ELEMENTAL ISSUES

We're in this pickle because the fundamental way a battery works hasn't changed since Alessandro Volta figured it out back in 1800. You run a wire between oppositely charged terminals to initiate an electrochemical reaction; put a device in the middle of that circuit, and the electrons scurrying from negative to positive will power the device along the way. Simple.

What has changed in the intervening centuries is our understanding of chemistry. Think about it: The periodic table of elements wasn't even fleshed out in Volta's time. Starting from such a raw position, you can make steady--and, over time, dramatic--improvements in battery capacity and performance just by fiddling with the ingredients (as the ensuing zinc-copper-lead-carbon-nickel-cadmium-mercury-lithium element soup has amply demonstrated). But take a mature technology that's been poked and prodded and optimized for more than two centuries, and then ask for exponential improvement to meet the needs of a new generation of omnibus power-gobbling gadgetry, and . . . well, you can see how unreasonable such expectations might be.

Most of our portable electronic devices--at least those that draw the sort of heavy power load that makes alkaline disposables both economically and environmentally impractical--use a lithium-ion (Li-ion) rechargeable battery, a technology that largely supplanted nickel-cadmium and nickel-metal hydride cells after its introduction in 1990. Li-ion batteries have superior energy density, don't ever have to be fully discharged, and they're comparatively small. Nickel-cadmium (NiCd) is dead except for use in power tools, where its ability to produce relatively high current has been necessary to spin a drill bit. Nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) is still used for rechargeable AAs and other standard-size cells, but not much else.

All laptops today use Li-ion cells, as do most cellphones. And until an entirely new battery technology arrives--a future that's probably at least five years off--Li-ion is in charge. As the most electrochemically active element known, lithium marks the end of the road Volta set us off on at the close of the 18th century. As IDC's Alex Slawsby puts it, "We're not expecting to see many new elements added to the periodic table anytime soon."

EVASIVE ACTION

So we're stuck with our nearly tapped technology for a while. What do we do now? There are two approaches to the portable-power problem: squeezing more blood from the lithium stone, and retooling gadgets to run more efficiently.
On the chemistry front, battery researchers are focusing on three strategies to juice up the best battery tech we have:

Sharing the Load Companies such as Cymbet are trying to make ridiculously thin batteries--we're talking 25 microns thick, less than half the width of a human hair. At that size, a laptop manufacturer could use one for each component of
a computer, distributing power over a network rather than relying on a single cell. The components would draw juice only when needed, thus giving each battery a longer life.
A similar approach is to use supercapacitors alongside traditional batteries; the former would handle power surges, while the latter would mete out a steady stream.

Changing Component Materials Two years ago Sandia National Laboratories developed a material for the negative terminal of a battery that has twice the lithium-storage capacity of the graphite typically used. They devised a new graphite matrix to create more surface area for the lithium, and then embedded the matrix with silicon, which reacts with lithium ions. If the battery is ever made, it would have an energy density 1.5 times that of a standard lithium cell.

Faster Charging Times In March, NEC demonstrated a technology called organic radical Li-ion. It can be recharged in--get this--30 seconds. The trick was using a new material at the positive terminal that isn't so clingy with the electrons, making it easier (and faster) to send them back the other way. The company expects to release the battery in two to three years, and if it does, it could be a pretty effective Band-Aid.

Meanwhile, regardless of what the beaker tweakers come up with, electronics makers themselves can do something. It's undeniable that product engineers sometimes make suspect choices when it comes to balancing design and functionality.

Here, for instance, is our favorite Frequently Unanswered Question (FUQ): Why is there an utter lack of standardization in battery shapes, sizes and chargers? Manufacturers will tell you that it has to do with efficient design. Maybe. Richard Doherty of Envisioneering has a darker take: "Twelve years ago there was an effort by Duracell with all the laptop makers to make a series of universal rechargeable batteries," he says. "Fell on its face--PC makers found that selling a variety of batteries is more profitable."

But product designers are working on solutions as well as excuses. One flicker of encouragement: According to research done by Panasonic into the digital camera market, three-megapixel models (in particular) suck less than they used to:

Average Power Requirements for 3MP Digicams
2002: 2.41 watts
2003: 1.71 watts
2004: 1.51 watts (projected)
That's a 37 percent improvement, resulting from more energy-efficient sensors and digital signal processors. Engineers are targeting three primary components in a range of tools and toys to do the same thing.

The Display The LCD on a laptop computer consumes up to 35 percent of the power because it requires an energy-draining backlight to shine through the liquid-crystal layer. Color
organic LED (OLED) displays emit light, which cuts power consumption by two thirds. Kodak introduced a digital camera with a color OLED display in Europe in 2003, but it will probably take years before OLEDs are ready for prime time (they're expensive, not suitably durable, and the colors fade over time).

The Hard Drive Creative Labs has produced several generations of hard-drive-equipped MP3 players and is working with vendors to design tiny disk drives that will extend battery life. "Today all the hard disks that are used in portable players were really meant for computers," says Chian Yi Loo, the company's vice president of engineering, "so the design concentrates on faster data transfer." Specifically, that means the ability to spin the drive up to 7,200 rpm, when all you need for a portable media device is around 4,200 rpm. The higher the speed, the higher the drain. Loo says that he expects drives by the end of this year that will be 20 percent more efficient than current models.

The Chips The engineers at Intel are so involved with this issue that they're already making up acronyms: EBL = extended battery life. The company's primary EBL strategy is designing chips so that sectors not in use can be shut down. It's doing the same thing on the system level, shutting down buses and memory blocks when they aren't needed. And in the years to come, your laptop may grab a cycle-saving 40 winks by keeping an eye on you. "We're playing around with user-presence detection," says Karen Regis, director of Intel's mobile marketing programs. "We've actually shown some technology demos using notebooks with integrated cameras, where the computer knows if your eyeballs are looking at the system and, if you look away, the backlight turns off."

AND NOW FOR SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT

At MIT, materials scientists have created devices that transform tiny vibrations--the rumbling of a moving car, for instance--into electricity, albeit in small quantities. At UCLA a professor of biomedical engineering, Carlo Montemagno, has figured out that we can use cardiac cells--which expand and contract without electrical stimulation--to power microscopic processors for implantable medical devices. They would run on glucose, the food of choice for human cells.

The folks at Intel and start-up Zinc Matrix Power are going retro: They're reviving the zinc battery, but as a rechargeable. Zinc Matrix Power says it has encapsulated the electrically active zinc oxide in a way that circumvents the recharge failures of the past. Its battery, which the company expects to contain twice the energy density of a Li-ion battery and to effortlessly mete out power in a trickle or a burst, should be available sometime in 2006. That the technology has piqued the interest of every major laptop manufacturer, Microsoft and several cellphone companies attests to its promise.

Cool stuff, but given the pending power doom, there aren't nearly as many mad scientists out there figuring out alternatives to the battery as one would wish. The best option for dramatic improvement, in fact, seems to be going with technology that's been around for 50 years: fuel cells.

Quick refresher: a fuel cell is essentially a battery that combines hydrogen and oxygen to create electricity. The term typically conjures up environmentally friendly hydrogen-
powered cars, but because hydrogen is volatile and difficult to transport, most portable fuel cells use methanol. There are two ways to do this.

In a direct-methanol model, you simply input liquid methanol fuel and output electricity. The only by-products here are carbon dioxide and water vapor. The problem is, methanol doesn't generate as much power as hydrogen.

Or you can run methanol through a reforming process to produce hydrogen gas, which then runs a hydrogen fuel cell. Of course, the reforming process adds complexity and additional waste products, and it takes up more room.

Whereas a battery is a closed system, with a fuel cell you can keep adding methanol, ad infinitim, to generate power. No more recharger.

The most appealing advantage, though, is that fuel cells theoretically can deliver significantly more capacity than batteries because, for a given volume, methanol posseses far greater energy density than, say, Li-ion can. That means stronger cells in a smaller package.

If fuel cells are so great, and if we've known how to make one for 50 years, why don't we have them for our laptops and PDAs? This is not an insignificant FUQ.

The biggest hurdles to making the technology practical for portable power have been miniaturizing the cells and devising a workable refueling option. (You can't buy methanol just anywhere, and the FAA won't let you fly with it.) Fuel cells also don't have enough oomph to spin up hard drives or power a camera flash, so with certain devices they would have to be used in conjunction with a small battery. The fuel cell would generate a steady-stream current and recharge the battery, which stands ready to handle a surge.

Another potential stumbling block: price. Fuel cells for portable devices all use platinum as the catalyst, and platinum is not cheap. "Fuel cells force a whole different usage model for portable devices," says IDC's Alex Slawsby. "If you want society to adopt a technology en masse, you have to build a bridge to the consumer. Make it a no-brainer. As soon as you go to fuel canisters, you quickly get beyond what society's used to."

But none of these problems are technically insurmountable. The research firm Allied Business Intelligence predicts that by 2012 some 15 percent of laptops will run on fuel cells. Billions of dollars have been spent on fuel cell research in the past 10 years. And although fuel cells are one of those technologies that always seem to be "two to five years from coming to market," promising developments are piling up.

In May, Casio announced what it calls the world's smallest fuel cell for laptops. It's a polymer electrolyte fuel cell that the company says could power a laptop for up to 16 hours. Due out in 2007.

In June, Toshiba announced what it calls the world's smallest fuel cell, period. It's a passive direct-methanol unit, meaning that it relies on a concentration gradient, rather than bulky pumps, to shuttle fuel. It's about the size of a pack of Big Red. The company says the cell could power an MP3 player for 20 hours, though it hasn't yet been integrated into a device.

Also in June, Albany, New Yorkbased MTI produced a direct-methanol fuel cell and integrated it into two devices, a pocket PC/smartphone and the Tapwave Zodiac personal video player, as a proof-of-concept. It's a little bulky, about a quarter of an inch thick, and uncomfortably warm, but the fuel cartridge fits neatly into a slot like a memory stick. The best news yet is that MTI plans to deliver fuel-cell-powered RFID (radio frequency identification) scanners to Intermec in December. This seems to be the first handheld electronics device powered by a fuel cell. And that's good news.

If that happens, we're on our way. Indeed, the availability of portable fuel cells is beginning to seem more like a question of when than if. Everyone's counting on it--there seems to be no other option. "We don't think we're going to see any breakthroughs in portable power till we get to fuel cells," says analyst Tim Bajarin of the consulting firm Creative Strategies. "Every one of the major players in portable electronics would put a fuel cell in their system tomorrow if, one, they knew it would work properly and, two, you could get the fuel cell refillables out there so that people could buy them at the local 7-11."

Until then, Rodolfo and all the rest of us will have to be satisfied with a large cherry Slurpee and backup batteries.